Article by Randy Robinson, Merry Jane
A research group at the University of California-Davis has joined forces with a Colorado-based biotech firm, Front Range Biosciences, to create a genomic map for industrial hemp.
The UC-Davis project, led by viticulturist and enologist Dario Cantu, will only sequence the genes for hemp, a variety of cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC (read: it won’t get anyone high).
“We are now excited to have the opportunity to study the genome of hemp,” said Cantu in an Oct. 26 press release. “Decoding its genome will allow us to gain new insight into the genetic bases of complex pathways of secondary metabolism in plants.”
Cantu’s lab is only handling the DNA sequencing and computational genetics portion of the project. Tissue culturing, DNA extraction, and funding for the project comes from Front Range Biosciences, which specializes in breeding cannabis and providing disease-free clones to licensed cannabis operations.
Both Front Range Biosciences and UC-Davis can conduct their research with little to no federal interference. This is partly due to the 2014 federal “Farm Bill,” which permits hemp cultivation for research purposes so long as it’s approved by a state’s agricultural department. Sending extracted DNA samples through the mail isn’t a problem, either, since Front Range’s DNA samples don’t contain THC or any other cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant.
“When DNA is isolated, it’s not really industrial hemp anymore,” Dan Flynn, a representative for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Science at UC-Davis, told MERRY JANE during a phone call. “When our campus council looked at it, they didn’t see an issue.”
Front Range Biosciences currently studies both hemp and marijuana – cannabis with greater than 0.3 percent THC (read: the kind that gets people high). In collaborating with UC-Davis, the firm seeks to unlock hemp’s agricultural potential, which includes breeding cultivars that are disease, drought, and freeze-resistant. If hemp is grown for industrial purposes, growing it outdoors would be the most cost-effective approach, since huge quantities of plant material would be needed to produce hemp-based paper, construction materials, textiles, or food products. Vaught anticipates his company could create breeds of hemp with new structural properties, so crops grown on a mass scale are easier to harvest with combines. Designing hemp that can produce specific cannabinoids, terpenes, or flavonoids is also in the works, but first the company needs to decipher the plant’s genetic code.
“Nobody really knows the genetics or the backgrounds of where some of these plants came from,” says Jonathan Vaught, the CEO of Front Range Biosciences. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. There’s been a lot of crossbreeding in the black market community over the last thirty to forty years, so it’s really difficult to know, a lot of times, what you actually have.”