The DNA of Dank

LeafWorks examines the genetic traits of cannabis.
Photos courtesy LeafWorks

Most of the time, when we hear someone talk about cannabis genetics, the first thing that comes to mind is a pack of seeds. But it goes a lot deeper than that, and as cannabis continues to get more and more normalized across America, scientists are beginning to dive even further into the genetic traits that make the heat the heat.

We sat down with LeafWorks to hear the latest in cannabis genomics and how they’re using science to create value for the industry. Ph.D.s Eleanor Kuntz and Kerin Law originally founded the company on the eve of California’s Proposition 64 vote that legalized cannabis for adult use in the Golden State. Kuntz brought the market experience from her work with natural product companies with a global footprint, while Law had just finished her Ph.D. in developing next-generation sequencing methodologies that would harness the power of the tech at more affordable rates.

According to LeafWorks, its primary concern at the moment is cracking the genetic code of cannabis to offer a ton of DNA-based services regarding what plants are being bought, sold, bred, and grown. As they chase this dream, a huge backbone for continuing toward that goal has been the company’s cannabis plant sex tests, which can identify male plants early in the growing cycle.

“I think it’s kind of always been on our radar, but it made sense to do something about it,” Kuntz said of the opportunities at the crossroads of cannabis and DNA testing. “In 2016, when we formed LeafWorks, it was really a more abstract concept at the time where we were looking at it more explicitly through the lens of natural products.”

Kuntz pointed out how big identity is in natural foods markets. She used the metaphor of how irritated someone would be if they ordered green tea and got echinacea instead in comparison to cannabis that’s completely mislabeled.

High Times Magazine, February 2024

The Sex Test

LeafWorks was one of the first companies to sequence the male and female genomes of the cannabis plant. This led to the company offering the first plant sexing test on the market.

“That was really what’s been our bread and butter test for us,” Law told High Times. “And we focused on cannabis because, unlike a lot of these other major crops, there’s no infrastructure, no one to help people get ready to go. And so we built that for the cannabis industry, starting with the most fundamental issue as soon as seedlings pop up. Is this a boy or a girl? And then we’ve developed it outward.”

With the sex test laying the foundation, they expanded further into pathogen identification and identity services. Law argued there are lots of different aspects of the cannabis industry that will benefit from genetic identification. That could mean proving something is that phenotype that dumps a lot of hash or confirming that a clone’s identity is what you’re being promised before buying it.

Pathogens are also a massive issue in the cannabis industry. Whole nurseries have collapsed after grows were infected, and others have hit the brink but survived after unknowingly spreading pathogens. So, clean plants are a big deal if you’re trying to keep the boat afloat.

Hop Latent Viroid Helps Pay The Bills

Kuntz argued that we’re a lot further along than the days when you could sell anything.

“The more refined your market gets, and the more saturated your market gets, the more quality and efficiencies within your own operation become important to you,” Kuntz said, noting how fundamental clean plants are to everything else being a success. “It’s really important to have clean plants because they survive better and they produce higher quality when you’re looking at the chemistry of the higher-quality product. And so I think there’s been a lot more attention and just a lot more knowledge about some of the detrimental effects of the pests and pathogens.”

After LeafWorks’s sex tests, checking plants for hop latent viroid disease and other pathogens is the company’s most common service. The symptoms of hop latent viroid are devastating to a commercial crop. They include shorter internodal spacing, smaller leaves, stunting, malformation, reduced vigor, lower water intake, reduced flower mass, and fewer trichomes.

Law said that at first, people tend to be hesitant to spend the money to get the hop latent viroid test, but some of LeafWorks’s steadiest customers have been people who didn’t test their moms and ended up battling hop latent for a season.

“Since then, we have very steady customers who realize that early and consistent testing really pays out in the end because otherwise, you lose such a high percentage of your yield,” Law said.

The pair estimated that roughly 80% of the growers they work with have come across plants with hop latent viroid. Kuntz described the situation as pretty bad everywhere.

When people first started testing for hop latent viroid disease in the mid-2010s, it was a costly process. The earliest forms of testing would cost thousands of dollars to check an individual plant. LeafWorks’s pathogen test initially only cost $50 bucks when it was first launched. In the years since the economics of scale has allowed the company to cut that price in half to $25.

“More testing makes it easier to lower costs. And I think it’s also important with the hop latent to make it at a price point where people can do the testing appropriately,” Kuntz said.

Kuntz explained the issue with a latent pathogen is that you can test a single plant and still not identify the disease because you have to test the tissue that the virus is in, and the test sample may not contain it. And so if it is latent in the plant, you can test an aerial part of the plant (or any part that is above ground, such as stems, leaves, or flowers), and the tests can still come back as healthy because that particular tissue doesn’t have the virus in it.

“But then as soon as you flip the lights or you stress the plants out, you overwater, you underwater it too much, UV, whatever it is, then all of a sudden the viroid explodes and moves through the plant,” Kuntz explained. “And then you can catch it more easily in all the tissue types. So I think it’s important to keep that price at a point where people can recurrently test their moms, especially so they can really know what’s going on with them.”

When people think of laboratory testing and cannabis, they usually fall into two groups of thought. The first is the safety aspect of ensuring no heavy metals or pesticides. The second is understanding what’s in the plant and is less safety-oriented but more focused on how much THC or terpenes are contained within. We asked the founders what they think people overlook the most regarding cannabis lab testing. Law believes people are yet to truly embrace the value of sex testing even though it’s a big money space for the company. Law argues the upfront costs could save growers 20% on operational costs.

The Ghosts of Cannabis DNA Past

One thing that held back cannabis DNA testing with growers occurred in 2019 when one company took private genetics from OG growers and promised them they would provide DNA markers to help protect their life’s work in the industry to come. The company ended up using the cuts to try and breed their own super strains, and as you can imagine, it left a horrible taste in people’s mouths.

Another problem was knowing if the material that a testing company got was vetted. A person could give them anything and then claim to have the genetic markers for whatever strain they wanted.

We asked the LeafWorks founders if those testing flaws have impacted what they’re trying to do.

“Yeah, and you have the problem of false negatives and false positives, right? So things that are the same are called different things, and things that are different are called the same thing,” Kuntz said. “That doesn’t serve anyone, and it actually acts to erode the value of the immense amount of breeding work and specialization.”

Kuntz further emphasized that she doesn’t think those past events hurt LeafWorks.

“I think what you have to do is you have to actually interface with the community itself,” Kuntz said. “You can’t come from a top-down approach, and I think we’ve learned this in agriculture. That’s never how you do anything.”

The Canndor Herbarium

Our conversation moved on to discuss how far out we are from actually being able to test any cannabis material and have a deep genetic understanding of precisely what it is.

LeafWorks recently received funding from the state of California to lay the groundwork for more in-depth genetic testing. They are working with Cal Poly Humboldt and the Origins Council on the Canndor Herbarium, a project that seeks to preserve the records of cannabis plants.

“It’s really focusing on community-led research, and whereby legacy communities are bringing forward these important plants in our community. These are the definitions and the boundaries of these plants,” Kuntz said. “These are the breeding histories, and then we’re doing the work to do the botanical portions of those definitions so that the community itself can codify those naming systems.”

Kuntz hopes that the Canndor Herbarium will help get the industry to a place where if you go into a store and buy something with a name attached to it, you always get the thing you’re expecting with the name on the container. Kuntz argued that if someone bought a bottle of merlot and a white wine came out, they would be frustrated.

We asked about the agricultural variability aspect of cannabis. Sometimes the same things just don’t turn out the same for a variety of reasons. Kuntz responded with another question: What if the variability is that the plants were never the same?

“The problem is if you have two more moving targets, how can you assess quality? Is it the fact that it’s the same thing and it’s cultivated differently? So that’s why they’ve got differences. Or is it that they’re not the same thing at all? So they’re never going to be able to get to the same point no matter how consistent the cultivation is in regards to location, inputs, whatever,” Kuntz said.

Kuntz went on to argue that variability in biology is what makes specific years or vintage wine more impressive, more expensive, and more sought after long term. She thinks the same will be true with cannabis. There will be specific years for certain cultivars, especially with products that can be stored for longer periods, like hash, that will be more highly sought after and more expensive because it was a particularly good year for specific regions.

Those following the space can expect to see LeafWorks continue to be at the cutting edge of cannabis and DNA.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of High Times Magazine.

  1. What a waste of time and money.
    Judging by the ht arcicles breederes that sell products on ht rarely use their human brain to make it practical.
    Or it is all just marketing lies.

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