In the past five years genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a point of contention throughout the world and particularly in the United States. The technology behind GMOs has concurrently increased at an astronomical rate. There is a growing demand for organic cannabis, but is there an alternative? Can modern techniques in gene editing, such as CRISPR-Cas9, be viable options for high quality, low pesticide cannabis?

CRISPR-Cas9 is protein-RNA/DNA complex, a sort of tool used by all bacterium. Single-celled organisms wage genetic warfare to survive on the micro-biotic scale. A virus can sneak its genes into a host for a variety of nefarious reasons. The host uses machinery, CRISPR-Cas9, to find these invaders and destroy them. This technique can also insert DNA into the genome it targets. Experts in the field of molecular biology and biochemistry have been able to modify the system, allowing it to be hyper specific. Plant biologist have been able to harness the genius machinery developed by bacteria over millions of years.

Recent articles in the journal Current opinion in plant biology have discussed advances in CRISPR-Cas9. Scientists have developed protocols that allow them to use this breakthrough technology to insert new genes into the plant’s genome. These new genes act as pesticides—but perhaps not in the traditional way you may think. This recently discovered tool inserts genes derived from other organisms that have a natural resistance to the pest in mind.

By adding these pest resistant genes, we can effectively make the plant resistant to those same pests. With the recent advances in gene editing in plants, there is little work that needs to be done to apply these principles to the growth and cultivation of cannabis.

In the state of Oregon, two strains of cannabis oils had to be removed from the shelves of recreational dispensaries. The reason for this was a dangerously high concentration of pesticides. Naturally, there was no malicious intent; these pesticides were added to protect the crop and allow for a bountiful harvest. But the end of the day, they were too dangerous to be consumed by humans.

Using genetic modification is not the answer to all of our problems as a society. The argument stands that GMOs are safer than harmful quantities of external pesticides.

There are often concerns associated with “tinkering” with nature. Concerns and skepticism are valued and welcomed in the scientific community. These concerns shape the way we “tinker” to be in the best interest of humankind.

Growers will have to observe if genetic modifications affect other traits aside from pest resistance. If these GMO strains don’t hold up to the standards of vigor and fertility of natural cannabis, than they may present a problem for the overall gene pool if used for breeding.

Genetically modified cannabis can alleviate the need for harmful pesticides. Ethical concerns arise inherently when dealing with GMOs, particularly concerning the patenting of genes and safe practices. Nothing—GMOs included—should be accepted blindly, but should be allowed to proceed with caution and a watchful eye.

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