Cannabis Geneticist Shares How To Have Thriving Plants

mowgli holmes

Mowgli Holmes, PhD is the co-founder and CEO of Phylos Bioscience in Portland.

Mowgli and his team provide fast affordable sex tests for cannabis plants and also offer plant genetics tests. Listen in as Mowgli shares his knowledge of plant genetics so you can have thriving plants.

Learn more at:

Key Takeaways:
[0:55] – What is Phylos Bioscience
[1:20] – Mowgli’s background
[3:21] – Mowgli talks about sequencing the cannabis genome
[5:29] – Mowgli explains Phylos’s plant tests
[7:08] – Benefits of genetic testing
[9:48] – Accelerating plant growth to get more seeds
[12:47] – Misconceptions of plant science
[14:59] – Common questions about Phylos tests
[17:01] – Timeline of tests
[20:47] – Naming the cannabis
[23:43] – Matt throws Mowgli a hypothetical
[25:08] – Plant genetic sciences and testing in the next five years
[27:17] – Mowgli answers some personal development questions
[29:41] – Contact details for Phylos Bioscience

What are the five trends that will disrupt the cannabis industry in the next five years?Find out with your free cheat sheet at.

Read Full Transcript

Today’s guest is a geneticist bringing modern science into the cannabis industry. I am pleased to welcome Dr. Mowgli Holmes, cofounder and Chief Executive Officer of Phylos Bioscience to CannaInsider today. Mowgli, welcome to CannaInsider.

Mowgli: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?

Mowgli: So, I’m at my company’s laboratory at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon.

Matthew: Okay. What is Phylos Bioscience on a high level?

Mowgli: We are a plant genetics company that works on cannabis. So we provide genetic testing and scientific tools to the cannabis industry.

Matthew: Okay, I want to dig in to what all that means, but give us a little bit of your back story and background. How did you get started in genetics science and specifically focusing on cannabis?

Mowgli: Me and my cofounder are from Oregon, and we grew up sort of in the woods in Oregon. Our parents were hippies and we’ve been around the cannabis culture in Oregon forever. He went away and became a business guy, and I went to New York and studied genetics, and then moved back in 2013. We got together. It was just the cannabis industry was exploding and had zero science, and it was pretty obvious right away that we were supposed to apply the genetics that I knew how to do to cannabis.

Matthew: Okay, so you’re trying to bring modern science to cannabis, and you want to bring what you know how to do to cannabis. What does that mean exactly, for people out there that are in this industry and are wondering what can Mowgli do for me?

Mowgli: All the modern agriculture is run on a lot of advanced science, and in particular plant genetics have transformed how we deal with growing plants in a bunch of different ways. We’re just bringing all of those over and applying them to cannabis. The first couple ways that we’ve been able to do that is we have some genetic tests that tell people things they need to know about the plant. Is it a male or a female? What is it actually? How is it related to everything else? What variety do you actually have? Then we’re starting to track down what genes control what traits and turning those into tools that will help breeders develop new kinds of plants.

Matthew: Okay. I can see where that could be very helpful. Just so we can get a little back story, we hear about sequencing the cannabis genome and things like that. You’re the right person to probably ask about where we are in that story and what’s important about it. Can you tell us anything?

Mowgli: Yeah, so when we started out we wanted to have a test that would let people identify their variety. So, we sequenced thousands of varieties in a collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History to understand the evolutionary back story of cannabis. We were using that dataset to offer this test that lets people finally figure out what they have and to let their customers know for the first time that they’re getting what they say they’re getting. We sequenced those thousands of varieties in a minimal way. We also took one variety and we sequenced the whole genome in lots and lots of detail, just the way they did with the human genome.

That had been done kind of sketchily before us. We did a much bigger, more detailed version and published it so everyone can work on it, but there’s still a lot of work to do on finishing the assembly and then learning to understand it. So, in terms of having full understanding of the genome we’re still really at the beginning.

Matthew: I mean, when that process is done you then said, it’s interpreting or understanding what that means, what the genome means and what it can do for you and what’s important to tease out of that. Do you have any kind of vision on what you think might be possible once that happens?

Mowgli: Yeah I mean, once we have the entire sequence, I mean, essentially every letter in the book that is the instruction book for cannabis, we’ll be able to start tracking down what genes control all the different metabolic pathways, and how all the different medicinal compounds in cannabis are created and how the plant grows. We’ll be able to make a mapping between different genes and different traits. All of that information will let us understand the plant better and it will also let us have incredible control over how we do breeding. We’ll be able to make very customized plants that have very customized medical properties.

Matthew: That sounds very exciting. Tell us a little bit about your plant tests.

Mowgli: So, the two tests that we have right now are plant sex tests, and we have a genetic identity test called Plylos Genotype. The plant sex test is simple. You order these cards from us, and we send them out and you smear part of the plant on the card. Right after it pops up and send it back into us. It’s totally legal, and we do a test called Quantitative PCR that we look for the white chromosome in the DNA. There’s DNA residue left on the card, so we pull that out of the card and we do this test and we look for the white chromosome. Then you get your results online the next day telling you which ones are males and which ones are females. As you know, growers who grow from seed need to get rid of those male plants in general, and it saves them a lot of time and money because they’re not watering and feeding and housing those male plants for weeks and weeks.

The other test, the genetic identity test is like 23 and Me, which is a human genetic identity test. It’s just applied to cannabis. It lets you see who you’re related to and what plant you really have. It’s really letting growers finally make a commitment to their customers when they give them something that this is what we say it is. Finally, you can always come back and get the same thing, if you find what’s working for you.

Matthew: As a cultivator or a grower, what do you think the biggest benefits are to having that genetic test like that available to them? What does that allow them to do?

Mowgli: So, there’s a lot of different pieces of science that cultivators need. These two genetic tests just touch on two very specific parts. If you grow from clone and you don’t care what you’re growing, these tests don’t help you at all. The sex test helps people who grow from seed. The genetic identity test helps people who really care about the identity of the plant they have and the promises they can make to their customers about it and about consistent medicine. In the future we’ll have tests that help people identify what traits their plants will have when they’re mature, just at the seedling stage, and that’s very useful to breeders. I think for growers in general the important thing about genetics comes down to knowing what plant you have. Eventually we’ll understand the genetics well enough to be able to say to people, you’re buying such and such a plant. We know from the genetics of this plant that it’s going to work like this and it’s going to have these traits and here’s how you should grow it, but we’re a ways away from being there yet.

Matthew: Okay. This is really helpful if you arrive at a plant that you think is perfect that you just want to keep on reproducing over and over again. Whereas if you’re making clones from a mother plant sometimes they can over time that there’s kind of this clone fatigue where the vigor of the plant is reduced somewhat, and so you want to be able to recreate that from seed over and over again. This is where you can say look, it’s not my guess. That is the exact same thing you had before that you were happy with. This is a genetic exact match.

Mowgli: Right, though I should say that right now the only genetic exact matches that we have are clones. So in the normal world of agriculture you can buy seeds that are genetically identical or they’re essentially genetically identical. For cannabis, if you buy seeds, they’re all unique snowflakes, every one of them. They’re all different. No one has ever made batches of seeds that are all identical. That’s why people grow commercial crops from clones, because if you want a homogenous crop or anything, you have to grow them from clones. All this genetic information will help us in the future make absolutely stable seed lines, which will be a big change in the industry.

Matthew: How can you accelerate the growth of a plant to get more seeds?

Mowgli: There’s a lot of ways to do that. Many of those things have to do with environmental manipulations. Also how fast a plant grows and how many seeds it produces are a function of genetics. By doing targeted breeding for traits like that, you can enhance them. That’s just a long, iterative process where you go through many generations of selecting for plants that have improved traits, and that’s what will happen. We’re going to see people go through that process over the next few years and plants are going to improve really rapidly.

Matthew: Yeah, when you say they’re going to improve. What ways do you think they’re going to improve, the most likely ways they’re going to improve?

Mowgli: I mean so many honestly. People have a tendency to treat cannabis as a widget that you’re just supposed to make a lot of and sell. It’s a living organism, and it’s evolving. Humans know how to make plants evolve really rapidly. The truth is that the cannabis around now it seems great. It is great, but it’s not going to be around in five years. It’s not an optimized crop. It’s never been subjected to professional plant breeding. So, in five years we’re going to have plants with optimized cannabinoid and terpene ratios. We’re going to have plants to flower earlier. We’re going to have plants that are higher yielding, plants that are easier to harvest. All of the different traits of cannabis that we care about, and there’s many of them, because it’s such a Swiss Army knife of a plant. All of them are going to be optimized and combined, and we’re going to have plants that are pest resistant, which we just don’t have now in cannabis. So there’s going to be a huge change in how things work.

Matthew: Gosh, that will be incredible, just think about that.

Mowgli: Let me put it this way. Right now cannabis seems amazing, but we’re going to be smoking absolutely out of this world pot in five years that we could never have dreamed of.

Matthew: Great. Something like a Elon Musk artificial intelligence designed pot that’s from the future.

Mowgli: That’s right. We’re going to make the plant naturally, but we’re going to design the breeding program on the backend with Elon Musk wired up to an artificial intelligence machine. That’s right.

Matthew: Do you ever talk with cultivators or business owners and discover they might not be thinking about plant science correctly in particularly how it can help their business. Maybe they have some misinterpretations or some notions that are just not the proper lens to be looking at plant science.

Mowgli: I mean, I assume that’s a rhetorical question.

Matthew: I guess do you see trends in their answers that you can summarize?

Mowgli: Yeah I mean, this is an industry that has not been run on science. It’s been run on legend and lore and just the wacky accumulation of social knowledge on internet forums. It just hasn’t been based on science. So, all kinds of little factoids that aren’t true get enshrined into how people do things. So, that is changing rapidly. There are thousands of growers out there who are using pesticides who don’t even realize they’re using pesticides. They think they’re not using pesticides. They’re like this is a natural product. They just don’t know. There are people using pesticides who are talking about oh, you can apply this pesticide early on in the life cycle and then it will be gone. It just goes away. That’s not true in general, but rumors like that spread and they can often have really really dangerous consequences.

There are also lots of master growers who, even if they’re not thinking about the science right, they’re really tuned into their plants and they grow amazing plants. People are working from a really kind of superstitious and just rumor based approach to knowledge, and all of that is going to change soon.

Matthew: Now do you get any specific questions in regards to your tests over and over again where people are like hey—what do they want to know? How fast can I get this? What will it tell me? What other kind of questions do they have?

Mowgli: For the plant sex test at first people just thought you can’t identify the sex of a plant overnight. They just didn’t believe that you could do that. So, I think we went through a lot of time of just trying to prove to people well actually you can do it and here’s how you do it. That one was simple. The math was simple. It turns out that growers have never really done the math. They spend between $50-$80 per male from the time they plant it to the time that they call it. Just with light and water and nutrients and never mind space and plant counts. So, our test, we can get it down to below $10 and it just saves them a lot of money. So once that was demonstrated to people there were no more questions. We get orders for 5,000 and 10,000 seedlings at a time all the time now.

Matthew: Wow.

Mowgli: Yeah it’s just taken off. In fact we underestimated the market for the plant sex test. We did not realize how many people still grow from seed, which is great because clones spread diseases. They’ve given rise to the epidemic of pesticide use that we have now. Seeds spread diversity and they’re clean. We want the industry to go in that direction.

Matthew: That’s crazy. Are most of your customers in Oregon or California or where do they reside?

Mowgli: Most of them at the moment are in Oregon and California, as they should be. We have customers now in 26 states and 5 countries.

Matthew: Okay. So, when they go through, a seed seven days after germination, the seedling can be tested and smeared on this piece of paper and sent to you. Then once it’s sent to you, does it take a couple days and then once you receive it it’s a one business day turn around?

Mowgli: So, we say 48 hours from when we receive it, but we can often do 24. The plant genetic test, the genetic identity test, that is a much more complicated procedure. It’s a more expensive test. It takes a couple of weeks to turn around, and at the end you get a login to a place on our website called the Phylos Galaxy where you can see your plant in this three dimensional map with all the other plants that we have and you can see how it’s related to everything else in the population. That’s much more complicated and has a lot more science and data behind it. It’s way less simple than the plant sex test, but it also solves a huge problem in the industry, which is that no one has any idea what they’re smoking.

Matthew: How much do the tests cost, both tests?

Mowgli: The plant sex test is $15 for one. For bulk orders we can get it down well under $10. The genetic identity test, Phylos Genotype right now is $295 for one and we can get that one down for bulk orders too. Already there are dispensaries in Oregon that are sending letters to all their suppliers saying we’re not taking stuff anymore unless it’s been tested by Phylos, because they want to be able to promise to their customers that they’re getting what they’re being told they’re getting. Even if it’s a plant that is on its own in the galaxy and it’s hard to know what it really is and someone gave it a wacky name, we don’t have any other samples like it on the map. Then when you guarantee to something that they’re getting what you say they’re getting it might not be meaningful to them, but the important point is that they can always get it again. It’s a guarantee of consistency. In the past patients have struggled to find plants that work for them, and then when they find it they often can’t get them again. Now that’s over.

Matthew: Right. So it sounds like this is the doctors and the pharmaceutical industry said, one of the complaints about cannabis is it’s not repeatable. We can’t do math with this. We can’t decide one gram of this will produce this result because it’s not homogenized in terms of the output. And you’re saying even though it’s a botanical, it’s a plant, we’re getting closer to be able to do that exact thing that they’re complaining about and solving that problem.

Mowgli: It’s exactly that. If you think about all the reviews on a database like Leafly, you can click on a strain name, Sour Diesel and then there’s thousands of reviews of what it’s like. If you download all that data and you look through it, there’s no signal in the noise. The reviews are just all over the place. The reason is that those people are not all smoking Sour Diesel. They’re smoking tons of different things that got named Sour Diesel because there was a marketing advantage or a confusion. So, when we start to know okay all of these reviews or patient reports are associated with this genetically identified plant, all of a sudden people are going to be responding to the same medicine. Now you’re doing science and now you have a dataset that is meaningful.

Matthew: Okay. Is there going to be some names that are easier to come up with than some batch name or something. How do you do that? Do you say Sour Diesel Batch 134682 or something or how will that work?

Mowgli: It’s confusing. There’s a few different levels to that. I mean, if you look at the big Sour Diesel cluster on the Phylos Galaxy, there’s this huge cluster of Sour Diesel. There’s plants in there that have other names. We don’t need to make everybody change the names of their varieties to be correct, but we want people to know that that’s a plant in the Sour Diesel cluster. Maybe the grower had unique growing techniques and has made it a little different because of variation. Plants do vary from batch to batch. The mandatory chemical testing that plants have to get now captures that. What the genetic identity catches is all the other things that go into the identity of the plant, all the other hundreds of terpenes and cannabinoids, which are genetically specified. So even if one batch is a little bit higher in THC or a little bit lower in pinene, it’s always going to be basically the same, if it’s genetically identical. It’s going to be pretty close.

Matthew: Right, it’s just pretty much environmental factors perhaps that changed the outcome of the plant, if there’s minute differences.

Mowgli: So, thing about wine. The last thing you want is for all Sura to be the same. The whole point is it’s all different. You grow it in different ways, in different environments and it becomes different, but you want to know it’s Sura. You don’t want to walk in a wine store wanting Sura and then come out with some crappy Merlot that’s been mislabeled. When you get the Sura you want there to be interesting variation as well. So, I think people will start to think about it like wine. They’ll start to think about vintage and they’ll start to think about varietal, but they’ll also start to think about varietal and vintage and vintner and (22.50 unclear) and all of those things. So they’re all important.

Matthew: Let’s just do a hypothetical here. If you were tasked with being the breeder or master grower of a brand new cultivation facility and they wanted to make sure that we catalog and get our genetics right and everything. Just a lot of grows are just not even very organized. How would you go about kind of creating the ideal setup in terms of cataloging the genetics of your plants and over time kind of looking at things to make sure that you can go back to any point in time and make sure you have the proper genetic fit for what you’re trying to do?

Mowgli: Let’s assume you’re a grower and not a breeder and you’re just trying to organize the catalog that you’re bringing to market. We have a lot of grow operations now that have decided to genotype their entire catalogs. What you want is you want a diversity of offerings. One funny thing that we keep finding is that people often are running a couple of different varieties that actually turn out to be the same thing and for no reason. They got a whole other room running this other thing that they thought was different, but they both turn out to be the same. Someone made a mistake at some point and they’re just the same.

So, it lets people fix problems like that and it lets people kind of look and they can look on the map and they can say well I’m running these two or three varieties that are so similar, even if they’re not the same. I think I can safely get rid of two of those. I think it just lets people most importantly make a promise to their customers. Secondly I think it makes it easier to get organized around having the right diversity of offerings.

Matthew: We talked a little bit about where things will be in the future, but is there any other thoughts about where you think plant genetic sciences and testing will be in the next five years?

Mowgli: Yeah I mean, I think the things we talked about in the future are going to happen really really fast. I think that in the future people will always know what plant they have. I think genetic testing will be ubiquitous. I think data driven plant breeding will be ubiquitous. I mean we’re going to have an explosion of knowledge about the cannabis plant and the cannabis genome just in the next few years. I think the time that growers are going to be growing incredible stuff and we’re all going to be smoking pot that we never dreamed of. I don’t think that’s ten years out. I think that’s four years out.

Matthew: Where do you go to keep on top of all the developments in plant science and genetics? Is there any websites or is it universities? I mean, how do you keep on top of latest here?

Mowgli: In cannabis there’s no good place for that. In the plant science world we’re in the thick of the science. We’re reading journal articles. We’re talking with the scientists on our scientific advisory board. We’re going to conferences. We’re just keeping up with the cutting edge research that happens at universities. The scientific world hasn’t ever gotten very good at making what it does public or publically accessible. It’s out there in journal articles online and you have to know how to read that language, but that’s our job.

Matthew: Right. I like to ask a few personal development questions to help listeners get a sense of who you are on a personal level. With that is there a book that has had a big impact on your life or way of thinking? It doesn’t necessarily have to be within the realm of genetics. It could be anything.

Mowgli: I have a favorite book. It has nothing to do with any of this, but I will just tell you what it is. It’s a book called Gravity’s Rainbow by a guy named Thomas Pynchon, and I’ve read it 11 times now.

Matthew: Oh my gosh. Well give us a little brief of what it’s about.

Mowgli: You’re going to have to go and find out yourself.

Matthew: What a teaser that was. I’ll put a link in the show notes. Gravity’s Rainbow. That’s a good title anyway. So one more personal development question. Apart from your tests, is there a tool, web-based or physical, you use daily that you consider vital to your productivity?

Mowgli: Tool that I use, when I started this company I was a scientist. Now my job is to write emails, and Jess Kristoff, who is this incredible scientist who used to work with Craig Ventor, she runs the lab and it’s the tightest ship every. Alicia Holloway runs the data lab. She used to run (28.49 unclear) at UCSF. I can’t hold a candle to them. So my job is to write emails. So, yeah I have a tool I use daily that’s vital to my success. It is a very small bright pink computer. I think at this stage of the game, computers should be really small and pink. I have one now and I love it.

Matthew: Anything behind the color choice there, or were you just feeling particular flamingo-like that day?

Mowgli: It’s one of these new Mac Books. It weighs like a quarter of a pound. Of course I got the pink on. I mean it just seems so obvious.

Matthew: Okay. Mowgli, in closing how can listeners find out more about your tests and connect with you and send in samples and just learn more about you in general?

Mowgli: There’s a ton of stuff on our website. They should just dig around on our website. There’s a contact form there. The Galaxy is there for everyone to play with. It’s really fun, especially if you’ve been smoking pot, to zoom around in the 3-D world of the Galaxy.

Matthew: Okay, and can you give out your website one more time?

Mowgli: Yeah so actually I wish this wasn’t true, but our url sucks. I’m going to say it really slowly. It is If you Google Phylos or Phylos Galaxy, it will take you right there.

Matthew: Okay. Well, Mowgli thanks so much for joining us today and educating us about cannabis genetics, plant genetics and science. I really appreciate it. A lot of exciting stuff coming up, and I encourage everybody to reach out to Mowgli and Phylos Bioscience if you have test and want to know anything about your plants genome or the sex of your plants. It sounds like a very good operation, and I wish you all the best Mowgli, good luck.

Mowgli: Yeah, thank you. Thanks a ton.