Marijuana: CU's Cannabis Genome Research Initiative takes pot science to new heights

Due to its notorious status, marijuana has often been left behind as science moves forward with the study of botany. But much of that has changed with the passage of Amendment 64. "Despite the fact that cannabis is one of the most valuable and historically important crop species, we know comparatively little about the plant," says Nolan Kane, a member of the University of Colorado Boulder's department of ecology and evolutionary biology, who is heading up the Cannabis Genome Research Initiative.

With this project, Kane intends to map the marijuana genome, creating a more sophisticated knowledge of its DNA makeup and history -- a treatment that other plants like corn and soybeans have enjoyed for a few years.

Once this is accomplished, Kane says that ganja growers will be able to explore "more efficient and cost-effective cannabis breeding -- choosing what to breed with what in smarter ways." Current methods of developing a strain are done somewhat blindly, using rudimentary combinations of different indica and sativa strains, and then producing a large volume of plants, over and over, until the growers find what they're looking for. Kane says he doesn't want to dismiss the advances made in the field of marijuana cultivation so far, but "the tools I will develop will allow a better prediction of which plants are desired without the expense of growing, measuring, chemotyping, etc., all of those plants," he notes. "This is a huge additional expense and waste of time that can be avoided by modern, marker-assisted selection."

While the project is not yet fully funded, Kane is moving ahead with the eighteen-month endeavor because of the momentum he's seen for marijuana science research. Last Friday, President Barack Obama signed a $956 billion farm bill that contained an amendment -- pushed by Representative Jared Polis -- allowing universities within states that allow hemp production to conduct studies on the non-psychoactive plant without fear of losing federal funds.

This was great news for Nolan, who says one of the biggest applications of cannabis genome research is to breed low-THC lines for even more advanced and economical forms of hemp. "This is a potentially very valuable crop for agriculture in Colorado and other places," he explains. "It could be used for biofuels, food and fiber production for high-quality paper, clothing, rope, so many purposes."

Having the ability to lower the THC content of a plant while increasing the cannabidiol levels will also propel discoveries in the field of medical marijuana, allowing doctors to administer non-intoxicating medicine to children dealing with seizures or other ailments.

Kane stresses that his research has nothing to do with Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) science, which has come under scrutiny for altering the DNA of food products in ways that don't occur in nature and may be harmful. "With our work, the genetic variation isn't altered, you are just choosing what to breed with what in smarter ways," says Kane. "People have been breeding animals and plants for 10,000 years or more, so the basic approaches are not new, just substantially improved in terms of efficiency."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Colorado universities can now legally grow hemp for research -- but will they?"

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse