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Meet the Team Pollinating Female Cannabis Crops With Female Pollen

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Feb 07, 2023   
A gloved hand grasp a cannabis plant.

Image credit: iStock

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In order to preserve the favorable effects and genetics of a certain plant or strain, many modern cannabis producers opt to use cannabis clones or tissue culture techniques in their cultivation operations.

This genetic consistency is why, despite requiring less space and growing with vigor, growing crops from seed has largely fallen out of fashion. Seeds require the cross-breeding of both a male and female plant, leading to hybrids that may or may not preserve the attributes that a cultivator is looking for.

But what if there was a more reliable approach to cannabis seed? Ananda Developments is a UK-based cannabis company at the forefront of a new wave of research looking to transform cannabis into self-pollinating plants that can produce genetically stable, feminized seeds.

Analytical Cannabis recently spoke with Ananda’s Head of Plant Science, Dr. Nigel Gale, to learn more about this research and the advantages that a seed-based cultivation strategy could have for cultivators.

Inside Ananda’s seed project

Selfing, or self-pollination, using a method called single seed descent (SSD), is not a new concept. This plant inbreeding strategy has been used in oats, soybean, wheat, and other crops to create stable genetic lines. However, this inbreeding method is only possible for self-pollinating plant species, which cannabis is not – or at least, it isn’t normally.

“The project is really to produce seed by having genetically female mothers pollinate a female plant,” Dr.Gale told Analytical Cannabis. “Right off the bat, that project required doing a lot of science to figure out how you get a female plant to produce a male flower, and what are the best ways of doing that.”

As Dr.Gale explained, there is some scientific literature from the 1960s and ‘70s that describes masculinizing cannabis plants using different hormone inducers. But while these papers did prove that it was possible for a female plant to produce a male anther (the part of a flower that is responsible for pollen production), none of the papers demonstrated a successful selfing method that could make viable seeds.

Working with other scientists from the University College Dublin and the James Hutton Institute, the Ananda team has already successfully produced viable pollen from a masculinized female cannabis plant. Moreover, Dr. Gale says that there are currently seeds being planted and grown that were produced from this selfing program.

While some companies have begun using complex inbreeding programs to produce stable seeds for cultivators to purchase, Dr. Gale says that Ananda is going a step further.

“Where I see the real novelty here is that we’re producing stable seeds from existing cultivars; we’re going to breed and cross the seeds, make novel combinations of things, and then we’re going to grow them and produce a commercial flower,” Dr. Gale said.

Growing from seed versus cloning

Using clones or tissue culture methods is extremely effective at preserving plant genetics. However, in the long-term these methods can run into issues.

Continuously taking plant and stem cuttings from a mother plant to produce clones can stress the mother plant over time, leading to reduced vigor. Fresh young clones are also extremely sensitive to environmental stressors since they lack a developed root system, and so great care must be taken when working with them.

Tissue culture methods yield disease-free plants, which is one of the great advantages of this method. However, growing plants in a lab from micro-cuttings requires highly-skilled staff members, dedicated clean rooms, and the upkeep of mother plants.

“The best thing about seeds is they are vigorous and disease-free. So, you germinate seeds, there’s no diseases, and they [the crops] grow at the optimal growth rate because it’s a fresh seed. It’s not a clone off of a 10-year-old mother that’s been cloned a million times,” Dr. Gale said.

Cultivation directly from seed also means no need for a mother room, which means significant savings on space and upkeep costs.

“HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] costs, heating costs, light costs are quite intense,” Dr. Gale said. “And so not having the mother space, you don’t need to do anything with that. Depending on how big your facility is, you can save thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands a year just based on that.”

Towards custom cannabis medicines

Work is currently ongoing to refine Ananda’s selfing procedure even further, with the aim of improving the uniformity and consistency, yield of viable seeds and maximizing flower growth. Such improved yields will be key to the future success of Ananda’s program. Eventually, it aims to produce large numbers of proprietary genetic lines.

Ananda is also collaborating with genomics testing laboratories to learn more about the genome of these seeds that are being produced. The SSD breeding technique does amplify both positive and negative genetic traits, so having a firm understanding of the seed genome should enable the team to make more informed choices when working with these stabilized seed lines.

Ultimately, the team is hoping to use these stable seed lines as a starting point for developing new crosses that are tailor-made to suit different medical cannabis indications.

“You can cross and make informed decisions based on patient needs or demands and come out with something entirely new. And that is certainly unprecedented,” Dr. Gale said. “As we produce products, you get data on what is good, what products are being used by patients. And if you have two cultivars that work really well for a suite of conditions, and you cross them, you’re probably going to get something remarkable.”

“Once we have full stability, we can make really informed crosses based on the genetic work that we’re going to do,” Dr. Gale continued. “The genetics sphere is really evolving, and so am I. It seems extremely promising and feasible.”

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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