Researchers Unveil New Study on Genetically Modified Hemp Methods

The study suggests that genetic modification has the opportunity to “unleash the complete potential of cannabis.”

A recent study published in Biocatalysis and Agricultural Biotechnology analyzed the possibilities of genetically engineering cannabis to ensure consistency and targeting specifical cannabinoids.

In “Using Advanced Biotechnological Techniques to Improve Cannabis Cultivars,” researchers from the University of Lethbridge’s Department of Biological Sciences in Alberta, Canada, explored the benefits of gene editing in cannabis. “Inherent breeding limitations, genetic instability, and psychoactive compounds have impeded utilization, however, application of biotechnology tools such as molecular breeding, tissue culture, and genetic engineering can advance cannabis research and applications,” the study authors wrote. “With recent advancements, cannabis micropropagation can substantially increase multiplication rates while preserving genetic lines.”

Examples of genome editing tools include zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)-Cas systems, which can be used to manipulate or precisely modify a gene. Researchers noted that these methods of gene editing in cannabis are “promising tools” “for editing biosynthetic pathways to increase enzyme efficiency and the development of novel cannabis traits.”

Traditional cannabis cultivation methods aren’t fully reliable when trying to create a strain with a specific cannabinoid in mind and is influenced greatly by the growing environment and various methods of cultivation. Also the hindrance of federal law that prohibits hemp growers from cultivating their crop by limiting the percentage of THC. If a grower’s crops are tested above the legal threshold of 0.3% THC, then the crops must be destroyed.

According to researchers, the CRISPR method of editing could be especially useful in targeting specific cannabinoids. “A recently emerged CRISPR-based technique known as base editing holds significant promise for customizing alleles and comprehensively characterizing genes, leading to the creation of gain-of-function mutations” researchers wrote

The authors surmised that utilizing the CRISPR method would allow for scientists to manipulate the amount of CBD or THC in a strain, which could also potentially save growers from losing money on crops that would otherwise be destroyed due to the THC limitation.

Ultimately, researchers stated that cannabis gene editing should be further explored for its potential. “In comparison to other profitable crops, cannabis stands out as exceptionally well-suited for bioenergy production, and it is attracting attention for its medicinal and economic prospects,” the study stated. “Biotechnology, with a primary focus on continually refining gene editing methods, presents the opportunity to unleash the complete potential of cannabis via genetic enhancements.”

However, even with the projected benefits of gene editing, researchers prefer a recommendation to study cannabis gene editing further. “As our understanding of cannabis genetics and biotechnological tools advances, we can anticipate more effective and sustainable approaches for producing cannabis with specific characteristics, all while navigating the complexities of the modern cannabis industry,” the researchers concluded.

In September 2023, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) gave approval to the cultivation of a strain that contains reduced percentages of THC and CBC. “APHIS found this modified hemp is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated hemp,” the agency wrote in its review. “As a result, it is not subject to regulation under 7 CFR part 340. From a plant pest risk perspective, this hemp may be safely grown and bred in the United States.”

In March 2024, APHIS approved the hemp cultivators in Wisconsin growing a genetically modified hemp strain called Badger G. The modified strain was found to contain high percentages of CBG through the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique, and lacks CBD and THC. 

Additionally on March 8, the USDA celebrated the second national “Biobased Products Day,” which is a day of awareness dedicated to showcasing biobased products that benefit the economy. “The Biden-Harris Administration supports and incentivizes biobased products because they are what consumers want — and what farmers, and our planet, need,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “American farmers, growers, biobased business owners and innovators are resilient and thriving. We are committed to celebrating them and the economic, environmental and health benefits of biobased products on National Biobased Products Day.”

In honor of the day, the USDA released two reports, including one called “An Economic Impact Analysis of the U.S. Biobased Products Industry: 2023 Update,” and another called “Hemp Research Needs Roadmap,” which details industry necessities through “Breeding and Genetics,” “Best Practices for Production,” “Biobased Products Manufacturing for End-uses” and “Transparency and Consistency.”

In the “Breeding and Genetics” section of the report, the USDA described the necessity of stable cannabis strains. “High-quality, consistent, and stable varieties are a necessity to establish value across the hemp industry,” the report stated. “Given the unique biological characteristics of hemp, both foundational and applied research will be required to unlock value, and it is critical that public-private partnerships are preserved to continually generate genetic gain.”

The announcement also included an investment of $10 million into Oregon State University’s Global Hemp Innovation Center. The Center will be working with Native American Tribes to increase economic development in hemp-based materials and products. 

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