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Is Cannabis Testing Now for Growers Too?

Feb 12, 2019

Is Cannabis Testing Now for Growers Too?
Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer

As marijuana legalization has swept the states, many farmers have seen their once stigmatized hustle grow into a profitable profession. And business is blooming. The ‘green rush’ has been so explosive that in Oregon, zealous growers now have enough cannabis to meet consumer demand for the next six and a half years.

But an expansive, regulated market comes with expansive regulations. In California, for example, all regulated cannabis products must be screened for a multitude of factors before they can grace the shelves. Pesticides, microbes, heavy metals, cannabinoids, and terpenoids, the list goes on, and is extensive enough to keep growers waiting anxiously for their results. 

And if it’s a fail, the batch is discarded and the whole process starts again.

But things are changing. Tired of being on the backfoot of regulations, cannabis growers are taking testing into their own hands. 

New, affordable technologies, like Medicinal Genomics’ youPCRTM, can screen cannabis plants for cannabinoids, pathogens, and pests, right on the farm itself. For the first time, growers are a step ahead. 

“We were looking at technology that was much simpler, in order to move to a more democratized version of diagnostics, where people can test directly in the field, directly from samples,” says Nathan Tanner, PhD. Tanner first developed the detection methods used in the youPCR product with his colleagues at New England Biolabs, before they were utilized by Medicinal Genomics. 

“We know Medicinal Genomics well and they identified cannabis testing as something that could really benefit from simple molecular diagnostic methods,” he explains. 

And as a broad diagnostic technique, Tanner’s detection method can be used by nearly anyone to test for genetic material. So far, it’s helped test pregnant women for the zika virus in Puerto Rico and run diagnostics in the International Space Station. But back down on Earth, it’s helping cannabis growers understand if their plants are safe for consumers. Quite the trip. 

And luckily for remote growers, the technique doesn’t require the bulky equipment used accredited testing labs or even live electricity. Just the youPCR kit, a smartphone, and a cup of hot water. 

“For traditional methods [such as PCR], you’d need an instrument that can heat and cool rapidly 30, 40 times to do the cycling. And it takes an hour or two hours, not including any prep time,” says Tanner. “If you’re sending off some material to the lab to get tested, then you’re looking at least a couple of days.”

“[But with youPCR], you take an hour to do it right in the field where you’re growing the plant.”

“The heaters can cost 400 to 500 dollars; it’s a simple USB-powered device that can do the reactions really quickly, so it cuts down a lot of the expenses of building up a biotechnology unit. But with a colormetric assay, you really can use a cup of hot water. The amplification method is not very sensitive to temperature, so as long as you can heat it up, it’ll work.”   

The technique can afford to be so simple thanks to its combination of cheap pH dye and an inexpensive buffer typically used during PCR. To test for a microbe, a farmer just has to select the relevant genetic marker, take a cutting of a cannabis leaf, and place it in the youPCR’s wells. If the pink solution turns yellow, then they know there’s a harmful microbe present, and can save time and money having their cannabis tested and rejected by an accredited lab.

It’s a low-tech solution to major problems in cannabis farming. And it’s all thanks to Tanner and co.’s colorimetric loop-mediated isothermal amplification technique, or cLAMP for short. 

“If you know what you’re going to look for - say, powdery mildew - you know the DNA sequence of the organism that’s causing the problem. And you just find the gene from that organism and design polymerase assays for it.”

“And every time the cLAMP polymerase puts in a building block for the new DNA, it releases a proton. We just take advantage of that and have a pH indicator that is sensitive to pH change above a certain threshold. If the amplification reaction occurs, the pH will change and we see that.” 

Still, even considering these impressive capabilities, cannabis labs shouldn’t be worried. Cheap testing kits like youPCR might be smart, but they’re still too simple to carry out every analytical check required by state law.

Rather than regulatory replacements, these kits should be thought of as another sign of the cannabis industry’s growing sophistication. With their own testing equipment at hand, farmers can now routinely check if their products are safe to consume or even contain the advertised cannabinoid content. As the industry expands and the limited number of accredited cannabis labs get more clients, these in-house tests could end up saving thousands of hours in wasted revenue. 

“Conventional breeding methods take a lot of time, labor, and off-site lab testing that slows down our breeding process and costs a lot of money!,” Colorado Seeds Inc., one of the preeminent cannabis growers in Colorado, and proud users of the youPCR equipment

“Working with the Medicinal Genomics team and their youPCR system has given us the opportunity to collect imperative data about our plants in a short amount of time. With the ability to accurately detect plant gender and CBD presence from our seedlings, our selection process has become much easier.”

Right now, it’s impossible to know how these devices will change production. There’s a chance that in five years’ time, every cannabis farmer in the country will be supplying safe, potent plants to their testing labs, confident that they’ll pass with flying colors. But for now, the one thing that many are confident in is that giving more power to growers can only better prepare the industry.   

“I think there’s a need to move analytical methods and molecular diagnostics to either folks growing from home or smaller operations and people that don’t have huge technical resources,” says Tanner. 

“So rather than sending it to a lab and having to wait for expensive tests or something, you can do it directly, the grower can do things themselves. It can really empower more folks to take advantage of molecular diagnostics.”


 

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