Exploring the Cannabis Genome and Its Promise to Revolutionize Growing

Nolan Kane

Nolan Kane PHD is mapping the cannabis genome at The University of Colorado (Boulder) and Kevin Frender is a Managing Partner at BlackDogLed. They help us digest and understand the promise and opportunity of genetic study as it pertains to cannabis.

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Key Takeaways:

[1:35] – Nolan describes his research
[2:52] – Kevin discusses the promise of genetic study in cannabis
[3:36] – Nolan explains what determines the genetic profile of a plant
[4:43] – What is synthase?
[5:38] – Kevin talks about Epigenetics
[6:29] – Nolan explains how his research helps cultivators
[11:08] – Broader look at Epigenetics
[13:59] – Nolan explains hybrid vigor in the context of genetics
[16:41] – Kevin explains what hybrid vigor looks like
[17:30] – What aspect of Nolan’s research is exciting businesses
[18:52] – Kevin explains the benefits of LED lighting
[20:33] – Nolan gives information on how to donate to his research


Click Here to Read Full Transcript

Matthew: Hi, I’m Matthew Kind. Every Monday and Wednesday look for a fresh episode where I’ll take you behind the scenes and interview the leaders of the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at www.cannainsider.com. That’s www.cannainsider.com. Do you know that feeling when you sense opportunity, when you see something before most people and you just know it will be successful, then you're ready. Ready for CannaInsider Consulting. Learn more at www.canninsider.com/consulting. Now here's your program.
We are going to do something a little bit different today. We are going to explore the cannabis genome and its promise to transform the cannabis industry. With me are two special guests. First is Nolan Kane. Nolan is leading a groundbreaking effort to map the cannabis genome. Nolan holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Indiana University/Bloomington. Nolan is currently an associate professor and researcher with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Next is Kevin Frender. Kevin is a managing partner of Black Dog LED and has an incredible combination of horticultural knowledge and first hand growing experience from his 20+ years of growing. Nolan and Kevin welcome to CannaInsider.

Nolan: Thank you.

Kevin: Thank you very much.

Matthew: Nolan let’s start with you. Can you describe the research you’re doing at Colorado University in Boulder?

Nolan: Sure. Basically what I do is I study actually quite a few different kinds of plants, mainly sunflowers and some wild mustards of different kinds and now cannabis. And what we do in my lab is we sequence all the genes, in other words, the whole genome. That’s what we call all of the genes that make up an organism. And we use that to understand what makes that particular species interesting and unique, how it differs from other related species, what some of its evolutionary history is, and a lot of the work that we do ends up providing a lot of applied tools as well. Because basically as you sequence the whole genome and understand how a plant or animal works, then that helps anyone who wants to study that plant in the future or animal.

Matthew: Now Kevin when you look at Nolan’s work and the mapping of the cannabis genome, how do you understand this? Where do you think the biggest promise is here?

Kevin: Well I think it really holds a lot of promise in terms of the implications for better understanding the plants and allowing for better breeding and cultural practices to get what we really want out of plants. Once we understand what the plants are really capable of, what their genetic constructions allow them to do and how best to use those particular instructions to our advantage, we can grow crops a lot more efficiently and get what we really want out of them.

Matthew: Now Nolan when you say the genetic profile of a plant, for someone that’s a novice, what does that mean? How can you frame that for someone that really doesn’t have that big of an understanding of genomics?

Nolan: Yeah that’s a good question. So what determines the genetic profile is the DNA of a plant. So what we do is we sequence all the DNA which is really the instruction book for that organism. And for instance if a particular plant that we sequence has the sequence for THC synthase, we know it has the capacity to make THC. But if it instead has the capacity to make CBD, it will have CBD synthase sequence instead, and some plants have both in which case they can make both of those compounds. So that’s just one example, but that tells us a lot about the plant, helps us make sure that we’re growing what we want to grow, and it certainly could be used by people on the private side to make sure they’re growing what they want to grow.

Matthew: Can you just back up and explain what synthase means?

Nolan: That’s a good question. So synthase is just a protein that makes something. So THC synthase makes THC. CBD synthase makes CBD. Any other number of compounds are made by other types of synthases or related types of proteins.

Matthew: So Kevin when you think about the genetic profile, what’s the most important thing you think about when you think about a plant’s genetic profile?

Kevin: Well the genetic profile is basically the set of instructions on how to build that plant and get it to live as well as generate any other compounds or fruit or flowers or substances within those fruit or flowers. So it’s important to understand what a plan is really capable of. Epigenetics is a fairly recent discovery compared to genetics. And it’s basically like bookmarks in this set of instructions telling you, “Hey follow this,” or “Ignore this section”. And only by understanding both can you really understand and figure out how to make changes that you really want either through breeding or cultural practices to get what you really want out of the plant. And by understanding everything involved, we aren’t poking at something in the dark anymore. We can actually make educated guesses and make a lot more progress.

Matthew: Nolan, how can your research help cultivators identify and select the best seeds and plants. Because at the end of the day, I mean this is incredibly interesting, but they’re saying, okay now what can I take away from your research to help me as a cultivator?

Nolan: Yeah absolutely. It is a challenge because we cannot work very easily directly with most of the growers and breeders. However, the information that we’re providing to the public can be used by growers and breeders to do all kinds of things. So as more and more people are interested in breeding for high CBD, for instance, a number of people have become interested in using genetics to do that. And instead of growing the plants up to maturity and letting them flower and then testing the THC level and the CBD level, they can throw out a good portion of the plants that they don’t want by just looking at the genes. And if they don’t want THC to be created, they can just toss any seedlings very early on just based on the genes that those seedlings might have. If they have THC synthase, if you don’t want THC, you can just throw those away. On the other hand if you want some level of THC and CBD, you can select plants that have both of those. If you only want THC, I suppose you could just select the high THC plants.

So that’s just one example. In our own work we’re also interested in flowering time and all kinds of other traits. And as we develop a better genetic understanding of all this, we can develop the tools so that people could select any combination of traits that they wanted at the seedling stage. That would allow them to grow potentially thousands of seedlings, select which should be the best three or four out of those, grow those up to maturity and see which ones have the traits in the best combinations that they want.

Matthew: Kevin, on a practical level how big of a benefit is what Nolan just described in terms of being able to identify a seed or a seedling that has optimal characteristics for a cultivator?

Kevin: Yeah Nolan actually covered most of it. Just like any other crop cannabis has and will continue to undergo selective breeding and modification. And being able to understand the genetics which effect the whole process allows us to selective but conventionally, without direct genetic modification create hybrids which perform better than their parents and demonstrate the traits of combinations of traits that we are really looking for. So being able to correlate specific genes with traits you’re looking for and being able to easily test for those allows you to select the so called perfect seed from among thousands.

So with traditional breeding you might cross two plants and end up with a thousand seeds, and the only way you would be able to tell which of those seeds were the best in the past was to literally plant every one of the thousand seeds, grow them up and wait for them to show what they were going to do which takes months and a lot of space, time and effort, not to mention money. So with genetic testing you can test the seedlings at a very small stage and literally pick the two out of a thousand seeds that you want to grow up and look the most promising and not waste your time, space or money on growing the other 998 that aren’t going to be of use to you.

Matthew: So that’s huge. So we have the confidence of a cultivator saying I have near complete confidence what this test will produce that, you know, these plants, these three out of a hundred or a thousand will have the optimal results which means better return on investment for a cultivator, speed and taking out a lot of the variables, and then an optimal harvest not just for the cultivator, but also for the end user that’s looking for a certain characteristics that are totally dialed in. So that’s pretty transformative. Now Kevin you touched a little bit on Epigenetics, and I’m going to show my ignorance here. My understanding of Epigenetics are somewhat a plant interpreting it’s environment to express its genes in a certain way. Can you talk a little bit about Epigenetics and what that means?

Kevin: Certainly. So if genetics are the instruction book for how to grow a plant. Epigenetics are like bookmarks that say, “Hey read this section, do this or skip this one”. And a lot of research is just recently started looking into Epigenetics over the past decade or so. And we found that interpreting the genome is a lot more complex than we had originally thought it would be. Without understanding how this Epigenetic instruction selection, I guess, is actually being interpreted by the plant. The plant may have a gene. For example, the codes for CBD production, but if it’s not being triggered into actually creating that it does you no good. So you have to understand whether or not that gene is turned on or off and that is Epigenetics, and it turns out more research that’s being done into Epigenetics that a lot of Epigenetic factors come from cultural practices as well as even previous cultural practices. So the plant may remember essentially that fact that 3 months ago it went through a period of drought, and that may have triggered some Epigenetic changes. And being able to figure out how to trigger those ourselves or undo those if we need to is really important for getting the most out of our cultural practices with plants.

Matthew: Wow, Epigenetics just sounds like a fascinating field of study. Nolan, are there any other examples of plants using Epigenetics to respond to its environment so it can thrive that you can think of?

Nolan: Yeah plants use a combination of genetic and environmental signals to interpret their environment all the time. They can’t move like animals can. So instead they respond to their environment in all kinds of complicated ways. They grow differently depending on whether they’re in the sun or in the shade, even on what kind of shade. They can sense when they have neighbors nearby that are plants and grow differently in response to that. So our understanding of Epigenetics is only, people have done a lot of good work on it, but I feel like it’s only beginning to be at the point where we can actually use it in a non-model plant like cannabis where there’s a lot less research than some other species.

Matthew: Now Nolan can you introduce the idea of what hybrid vigor is and how we can understand what that is in the context of genetics?

Nolan: Yeah. Hybrid vigor is just any time when having… Well I guess let me start all over. So I guess hybrid vigor is when yo have two parents that are very different from each other and the offspring does better than if you have two parents that are very much the same. So for instance in humans there’s all kinds of laws about who you’re allowed to marry. You’re not allowed to marry siblings or cousins and that sort of thing because there are a lot of genes where it’s really really harmful to have inbreeding. The hybrid vigor is the opposite of inbreeding really, and we take advantage of that in plant breeding to cross very distant relatives. In many cases that leads to something superior compared to crossing two things that are very closely related.

Matthew: Nolan, is there an example from human genomics that can illustrate hybrid vigor?

Nolan: Well yeah. So the Hapsburgs famously died out because of all kinds of genetic inbreeding, same thing with Russian Princess’s royal family there. Many of them had hemophilia which is a recessive gene, and they wouldn’t have… They would’ve still had that gene, but that gene is masked by the normal gene. So if they had married a Russian peasant instead of their close cousin, they would’ve had offspring that were perfectly healthy, but because they married somebody else that also had that same hemophilia genetic background, a lot of their kids, even in some cases, all of their kids had hemophilia and all of the health problems associated with that.

Matthew: Interesting. So is it fair to say, Nolan, that nature loves diversity?

Nolan: Sure that’s one way to put it, absolutely.

Matthew: Okay. And Kevin, just in your day to day growing practices, have you witnessed hybrid vigor? What does that look like in action?

Kevin: Oh absolutely. Oftentimes you can cross two different plants and end up with a child that is two to three times the size of its parents and just grows much more vigorously, produces much better. It’s a genetic play of the lottery any time you cross two things. And the more different genes you have, the more chances your lottery ticket is going to have of winning it big I guess.

Matthew: Okay. Now Nolan, your research is really important. A lot of people are watching it. What kind of businesses are approaching you, and what kind of questions are they asking? What are they getting excited about concerning you research?

Nolan: Well so my research has a lot of different applications. I mean a lot of the stuff that I do is really fundamentally valuable science from basic science point of view. In terms of more applied side of things the main interest has been on CBD breeding efforts as well as breeding hemp that will do better in Colorado due to flowering time and other environmental signals making it so that it will really thrive in the Colorado environment.

Matthew: Now Kevin we had you on the show a few months back talking about LED versus traditional lights. And I think there’s still a lot of confusion out there about, you know, the benefits of LEDs and how they compare and contrast to traditional lighting. Nolan’s using the Black Dog LEDs to grow some of his plants. Can you just describe again the benefits of using LED in particular, you know, usable light? There’s one thing that you mentioned in the past about, you know, infrared just being entirely unusable, yet that’s what so much of the traditional lights put out there.

Kevin: Right so plants evolved over millions of years to exploit the environmental niche they had to grow in, and LED lights allow us to tune the spectrum for exactly what plants want and what plants need to grow. It turns out plants don’t typically use a lot of light in the yellow and green area of the spectrum. That’s why they look green to our eyes. They reflect most of it. And so it’s wasteful to actually give a plant a lot of that light as opposed to the light it actually can absorb and use. So LEDs allow us to tune that spectrum to not create wasted light that the plant isn’t going to use and is gong going to serve to heat up the growing environment and the plant’s leaves.

Matthew: Now Nolan, watching the Black Dog LEDs in action as you grow your plants at the university, what’s your feeling about them?

Nolan: We haven’t done any formal tests of LEDs versus anything else in sunflowers or any of the other plants that we’re growing, but the plants that we’re growing are certainly very healthy . And I feel like the… I’ve been very impressed by the quality of the lighting and the performance of plants under them.

Matthew: Now Nolen in closing, how can listeners learn more and support your work because I understand you operate under donations at the university. How can listeners support what you’re doing?

Nolan: Yeah. So we don’t have any big grants to fund any of this. It’s hard to get funding for any science these days, especially this kind of potentially very politically sensitive topic. It’s really hard for federal agencies to find money to support us. But fortunately we have had some very generous donations from some private individuals through the CU Foundation. If you’re interested you can go to my website www.cannabisgenomics.org/donate. There’s a lot of different ways that you can donate to my work or work from related nonprofits that my colleagues are in, but really the neat thing is that the university has set up a fund to make my research easy to fund. And you can donate to the University of Colorado Foundation Fund 0125196. And so the next time the University of Colorado calls to ask for your annual donation, you can have it directed towards my research if you’re interested.

Matthew: Great. And Kevin how can listeners learn more about Black Dog LED?

Kevin: Probably just to go to our website. We’ve got a lot of information up at www.blackdogled.com.

Matthew: Excellent. Well Nolan Kane and Kevin Frender, thank you so much for coming on the show today on CannaInsider and educating us about, you know, the cannabis genome and how to think about it. We really appreciate it.

Nolan: Thank you.

Kevin: Thank you very much.

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