Article by Madison Margolin, Merry Jane
The federal government’s restrictions on cannabis have hindered American scientists from studying it in depth. However states that legalized weed on their own are not just “laboratories of democracy,” as Hillary Clinton called them, but also actual laboratories of cannabis research.
A number of private cannabis testing labs in marijuana-legal states have taken on projects and clients, with the ultimate goal of documenting strains, fostering greater reliability and predictability in cultivation practices, and for some, getting to the bottom of the largely unknown genetics of cannabis. But while each of these private labs has made strides in their own right, a lack of collective communication among them has fostered something of a ‘space race’ — an unspoken contest to learn the most possible about the cannabis plant.
The notion of competition should be taken with a grain of salt, though. No lab has explicitly admitted to competing with other labs, and the majority say their primary purpose is to serve clients such as cannabis farmers. Moreover, not every lab operates within the same field of research. Most labs fall into one of two categories: those that analyze plant genetics, and those that analyze plant chemistry. And while all these labs are privately owned, a handful of them do publicly release their data.
Take for instance, the Phylos Galaxy — a public database of cannabis genetics created by Phylos Bioscience, a lab based in Portland, Oregon. Phylos builds its database by offering clients in the cannabis industry both sex and genotype tests for their plants. The sex test tells cultivators if their plant is male or female as early as seven days after germination, and because only the female cannabis plants are harvested for medicine, the test helps growers save time and money otherwise spent on soil, water, electricity, and labor.
The genotype test, on the other hand, relates directly to the Galaxy. “[Growers] give us stem material that’s been washed with alcohol. By washing it, they remove the THC and cannabinoids, so now it’s just a piece of stem,” explains Jessica Kristof, director of research at Phylos. The lab extracts DNA from these inactive stems and sequences about 2,500 (out of 850 billion) genetic sites. The sites in the genome — an organism’s complete set of genetic material — function as a barcode used to compare a sample to everything else archived in the Phylos Galaxy.
Right now, the Galaxy contains genetic information on approximately 3,000 different strains, ranging from samples found in the ballast of a boat in 1879 to recent Cannabis Cup winners. Phylos collects samples from all over, so long as they originate in a legal state. (While the Controlled Substances Act specifically prohibits shipments of THC or cannabis plant material, the one catch is that you can ship ‘stock’; denaturing cannabis plants in alcohol strips away the THC.)
“The Galaxy helps you find patterns and genetic similarities between strains,” Kristof says. It shows where strains have genetic overlap or where they’re similar; therefore, it also helps cultivators identify clones.
The Galaxy can also help you determine if your strain is genetically rare or common, she adds. By organizing strains into six main populations (CBD, Skunk, Berry, Landrace, OG Kush, and Hemp), you can tell what percent of each population your strain is, Kristof explains. For example, say you rescued a dog of unknown origin and sequenced its genetics: the test might tell you the canine is 50 percent corgi, 10 percent chihuahua, and 40 percent terrier.