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How to Speed-Breed Cannabis? The Answer’s in Its Green Genes

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: May 07, 2019   
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It can take three to four months to grow a cannabis plant. Now, for a personal-use grower, those months are just an anxious interlude between them and their bud. But for an industrial-grade cannabis farmer? That’s a four-month production cycle, and one that could be costing them dearly. 

As the new green industry has grown, so has the competition. And any cultivator with a quickened growing time could have a killer advantage. But what’s the key to hastened hemp? Better fertilizer? Pin-point lighting? A prayer to the cannabis gods on high? 

Well, according to one biotechnology company, the secret to accelerated marijuana has been inside the plant all along. 

“Our cutting-edge technology allows us to offer a service of advanced breeding support and dramatically accelerate new variety development for hemp and cannabis,” says Oori Weisshaus, PhD, a genomic solutions specialist at NRGene, a US genomics company with a speciality in cannabis breeding.

Together with his colleagues, Weisshaus has used genome mapping, marker discovery, and trait mapping tools to gather the right genetic information to breed rapid, more productive cannabis plants. And one tool, traditionally used in the livestock industry, has been a particular boon for breeding: single nucleotide polymorphism genotyping (SNPs). 

As variable pieces of DNA, SNPs can act as key markers for genetic variation when comparing different organisms. In humans, the body’s 660 million SNPs can explain traits like eye colour and inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis. And in livestock and crops, the single DNA pieces can highlight genetic areas that control pollination, growth rate, and other factors that determine breeding. NRGene has developed technology that selects the most informative SNPs along with other types of genetic polymorphisms to generate the ideal set of genetic markers.

Armed with such information, a cannabis breeder can make better matches to help create a more prosperous variety that flourishes faster than existing cultivars.

“In the competitive environment anticipated in the cannabis/hemp space, I cannot imagine breeding for complex traits without genetic tools,” says Weisshaus. “Every major crop in the last two decades has had significant leaps in productivity thanks to application of genomics. With genomic tools, both simple and complex traits can be quickly identified and used to generate more efficient growing practices.”

But while NRGene’s claims may be impressive, any cultivator worth their sativa will have one more question on their lips: how much? After all, when the combined costs of lighting systems, warehouse spaces, and workers’ salaries are added together, running a cannabis farm can set owners back millions. Luckily, the costs of genetic tests have come a long way down in recent years, and Weisshaus is keen to emphasize NRGene’s commitment to affordability. 

“The way NRGene does the analysis requires a much smaller number of plants for initial analysis and therefore offers another significant cost reduction in maintaining a breeding program,” he states. 

“Breeding is a process that requires time and dedicated space that does not generate revenue. We offer to accelerate breeding to half the time for hybrid seed production or even less for clones.”

Whether starting life as a hybrid seed or a clone, cannabis’ chances to differentiate only grow from its beginnings. From medications to hemp clothing, recreational drugs to pet food infusions, the plant can find itself in a multitude of products. Which begs the question, can genetic tests like NRGene’s really help every corner of the cannabis industry? 

Regarding this complex future, Weisshaus confidently says that “NRGene is in a great spot.”

“We are also likely to see a need for specialty-chemical production,” he adds. “As more clinical trials are published, there will be a need for new varieties that can perform well in cultivation but also have significant level of specific cannabinoids, such as CBE. So there will also be great need for gene discovery and means to control synthesis pathways in the plant.” 

With such a wide applicability, it’s hard to imagine a future cannabis industry that doesn’t rely on genetic services like NRGene’s to inform its breeding. Hemp or recreational cannabis, it’s time to take the guesswork out of growing. 

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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