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The Cannabis Proteome Needed to be Sequenced – Here’s Why

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Sep 24, 2019   
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When we think of what science looks like in practice, we might imagine the stereotypical ‘eureka moment’ – that euphoric instant when one brilliant scientist hits upon a previously unseen truth. But, in reality, scientific achievements aren’t likely to arrive out of such individual realizations. Instead, science is more often the shared pursuit of countless collaborators, each providing the incremental insights that build up to make a new understanding of the world around us.

And perhaps no field represents this kind of collaboration better than genetic sequencing. Its pinnacle project, the Human Genome Project, took scientists from twenty institutions in six countries to complete. And now it seems the cannabis plant is finally due the same sequencing treatment.

“I’m a big advocate for making scientific data as available as possible to as many people as possible,” says Ben Orsburn. A self-described mass spectrometry enthusiast, Orsburn has been quietly progressing the analytical field for the last 12 years during posts at renowned organizations such as Thermo Fisher Scientific and the National Cancer Institute. But for as long as he’s been avid for analytics, Orsburn’s greatest aim has always been to help create a world-first genetics sequence. And now, as the co-creator of the first cannabis proteome, he can finally celebrate.

“It was very surprising to me, looking at this industry, that the proteomes of these plants have never been done,” he tells Analytical Cannabis.

For those uninitiated with genetics, proteomes are bit like the total product of every active gene in an organism. For example, while the DNA of a frog remains fundamentally the same throughout its lifecycle, its proteome changes as its genes are turned on and off to produce the different proteins which transition it from tadpole to adult. And a map of all these potential proteins – the proteome – could be a lucrative tool for anyone thinking of profiting from an organism.

“So there are a number of plant proteomes that have been done well; a decent job has been done on corn and an exceptionally good job has been done on rice. But never cannabis,” Orsburn says.

With North America’s legal cannabis market set to tip $47 billion US by 2024, it’s easy to understand why some investors would be keen to know every genetic avenue the plant product can take.

“I have a potential collaboration coming up with a chemist who is very, very interested in mass producing cannabinoids that we don't know about yet,” Orsburn continues. “They say, ‘Hey, this is the molecule I want, what proteins in the plant make that molecule?’ And then I say, ‘Here are the proteins and their sequences make this.’ And then they’ll synthetically make those proteins in a bioreactor – this cannabinoid that ever been able to be obtained in bulk before.”

Yet while Orsburn’s cannabis proteome may prove profitable for any savvy cannabis company, its origins were always firmly in that great collaborative, open tradition of scientific progress.

“We started this in February and it's just the two of us,” Orsburn confides. “This is an unfunded project, out of pocket for Connor [Jenkins, the co-author of the cannabis proteome] and I.”

“[Our sequencing] was helped by a German supercomputer, because there was no way I could pull together the genome with anything here [in the US],” Orsburn explains. “You obviously can't use US government resources for anything relating to cannabis at all.”

“So that's why we have to make these data publicly available,” he adds, “because there are better bioinformaticians out there in the world than Connor and me. They have more resources and better capabilities. But if they can just take what we've got out there and say, ‘Hey, this is a good start,’ then ten iterations from now its 90 percent better. We just need to get it out there.”

Like many stories of scientific progress, Orsburn’s cannabis proteome feels like a eureka moment – a great leap forward for cannabis genetics. Yet its true achievements are likely far in its future. But, just as the sequence’s creation relied on open international collaboration, so too will the projects it spawns – which is why this priceless proteome is remaining free to access for all.

“Anyone can just have this, anyone can just look at it online,” Orsburn enthuses. “Here's my contribution to this field. Take it and run.”

Ben Orsburn will present at Analytical Cannabis’ online symposium on the 26th of September. You can watch online here.

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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