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Israeli Startup Claims to Have Genetically Edited Cannabis to Resist Mildew

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Nov 27, 2020   
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CanBreed, an Israeli biotechnology startup, claims to have created the first cannabis plant that is resistant to powdery mildew, after successfully altering a gene in the plant that affects its susceptibility to infection.

The firm, based in Giv'at Hen, believes it is the first commercial company to successfully edit a cannabis plant’s genome.

CanBreed is now working on using this technology to create cannabis seeds that have this powdery mildew-resistant trait, which could be made available for commercial sale as soon as late-2021.

Creating a more stable crop

The CanBreed team made this breakthrough using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology, obtained by the team after reaching an intellectual property licensing agreement in August with Corteva Agriscience and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which own the rights to the tool.

Using CRISPR, CanBreed’s research and development team were able to selectively edit a gene within the plant, which controls the expression of a protein responsible for cannabis’ susceptibility to mildew infection. The edited gene would no longer allow for that specific protein to be expressed in the plant, potentially creating a plant that is impervious to powdery mildew infection.

Speaking to the Times of Israel, CanBreed CEO Ido Margalit said that the R&D team is now working in partnership with scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to prove that these gene-edited plants are resistant to the spread of powdery mildew. After this, Margalit says the company will begin work on creating cannabis seeds that have this coveted trait.

“By the end of 2021 we hope to have the first powdery mildew-resistant cannabis seeds for commercial sale,” said Margalit, adding his belief that the firm’s achievement could “change the face of cannabis cultivation in Israel and around the world” by improving standardization.

What would this mean for the industry?

CanBreed believes that the development of such mildew-resistant seeds would allow cannabis cultivators to grow much more efficiently.

Dubbed as one of the most destructive blights on cannabis, a powdery mildew infection will usually emerge a couple of weeks after flowering, meaning that it can suddenly wipe out or seriously damage an otherwise nearly-mature crop. As well as being harmful to the plants, humans consuming cannabis that has been tainted with powdery mildew can might also develop serious lung problems and respiratory infections. Mildew-resistant cannabis seeds could then greatly improve a farmer’s total crop yield and help in protecting consumer health.

Gene-edited cannabis seeds would also allow cultivators to grow more uniform crops, Margalit says. Speaking in an interview conducted after securing the CRISPR licensing agreement, Margalit explained that the current practice of cloning cannabis branches does help maintain the uniformity of the plant’s DNA, but that as the plant grows its genes could end up being expressed differently to the mother plant. “The only solution to that is growing cannabis from stable seeds,” he said, “Using clones does not serve that purpose.”

In other areas of agriculture, such as with the cultivation of tomatoes and wheat, growing from “stable seeds” is already commonplace. Stable cannabis seeds can be made by inbreeding cannabis plants. However, as so much of the cultivation industry depends on cloned plants, growers may need some kind of incentive, like gene-edited cannabis, to persuade them to change.

“Just having stable seeds is not enough,” says Margalit. “What the grower has to see are agronomical traits to ensure that they will have the most and highest quality harvest, so they like to see resistance traits in their products, that the plant can be adapted for a certain growth environment. None of those traits exist in cannabis.”

In Israel there are no rules specifically regulating the use of gene-edited plants, so growers in the region would be able to adopt such stable cannabis seeds fairly easily if desired. Similarly, in the US, plants that have been modified using CRISPR technology are not considered GMO products and so would not fall under those regulations. However, gene edited crops are essentially banned in the European Union, following a 2018 decision handed down by the EU Court of Justice.

What is CRISPR?

The gene editing tool CRISPR is considered revolutionary within the scientific community. With CRISPR, scientists could quickly and precisely change the DNA of plants, animals, and microorganisms for the first time, opening the door to new cancer therapies and even the possibility of curing inherited genetic diseases too. So valued is this efficient new technology that the inventors of the “CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors,” Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionized basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

There are many different types of CRISPR, but the tool generally hinges on the use of the “Cas” proteins found in bacteria. The Cas9 protein is most commonly used by scientists, as it can be easily “programmed” to find and bind to nearly any desired target DNA sequence.

CRISPR adds this Cas9 protein into a cell along with a piece of guide RNA. The protein binds to this RNA and begins to move up the strands of DNA in the cell until it finds a match in the DNA sequence for its guide RNA. Depending on what researchers want to do, the Cas9 protein will then either cut the DNA at the target to disable a certain gene, or begin the more complicated process of replacing a faulty gene.

While other gene editing techniques did exist before the advent of CRISPR technology in 2012, these other methods were dramatically more expensive and time consuming. With this much more accessible technique, novel medical treatments and even ideas such as these gene edited cannabis seeds can finally become viable projects.


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