Cannabis Science: The Age of Modification to Craft a Weed Experience
When it comes to plants, humans like consistency. We like our plants to have a consistent size, texture, shape, and flavor. But what about consistency is so attractive? Well, for one, if I’m making my grandma’s award-winning pasta sauce, I know it won’t be the same without a sweet, juicy, and plump heirloom tomato. We like consistency because it can offer an ideal experience over and over and over again. And that is why, for centuries, humans have genetically modified plants for certain experiences—cherry tomatoes for salads, beefy tomatoes for sandwiches, etc. When it comes to genetic modification selective breeding, hybridization, and induced mutations have been openly undergone by almost every crop in human history. Well, all, except for cannabis. But the time has come. Due to its legalization, we are entering an age in cannabis science where producers are using advanced breeding techniques to modify cannabis in a way that crafts the right experience for customers.
The Truth about GMO Marijuana
I know what you are thinking, “What?! Cannabis is being genetically modified? Like it’s GMO?” And before you pull the Monsanto card, let me explain. Genetic modification refers to a range of methods. It can involve everything from selective breeding, a technique that’s been used in agriculture for over 10,000 years to genetic engineering, the new age practice for inserting a fish gene into a tomato. See the confusion? When I refer to genetic modification in cannabis breeding, I am referring to selective breeding, hybridization, and induced mutations. These are techniques that have been around since the beginning of agriculture. Selective breeding is when producers actively choose traits a plant should pass off to their offspring by selecting the appropriate breeding pairs. Hybridization is the process breeding plants of a different variety or species. Lastly, induced mutation is the process of inducing a trait in a plant by controlling its environmental conditions.
So now that we have an idea of the techniques being used to modify, what exactly are producers trying to modify? Well, modification is desired for many reasons. There are some practical reasons why a producer might modify cannabis. For example, to produce plants that give larger yields and endure various environmental stressors. Beyond these practical modifications, when it comes to craft cannabis, producers like to modify for the taste, the smell, and the high. The compounds in cannabis that affect the taste, smell, and high are cannabinoids and terpenes. In order to modify the types and levels of cannabinoids and terpenes in weed, producers must modify the plant’s genotype, the genetic composition of the plant, and the phenotype, physical traits resulting from interaction with the environment. The modification of cannabinoids and terpenes require different techniques.
Cannabis Science of Crafting Cannabinoids
Cannabinoids are the compounds in cannabis that give its therapeutic and recreational properties. The most popular cannabinoids in cannabis are THC and CBD, however, there are 113 known cannabinoids in cannabis and each one has a different effect. The variety and strength of cannabinoids depend on the genotype or genetic makeup of the plant. Advanced breeding techniques—selective breeding and hybridization—are the mechanisms used to cultivate a sought-after genotype.
When it comes to selective breeding and hybridization there are a few things producers need to know in order to modify the cannabinoid profile of a plant. First, is to rule out the possibility that a trait is manipulated by environmental factors. Secondly, with selective breeding, producers need to know if the trait is a dominant allele or a recessive allele. Once this information is known, then a breeding plan can be put into place to strengthen the desired trait in the plant’s offsprings. The primary way that cannabis growers hybridize cannabis is by breeding indica with sativa varieties to achieve a hybrid with desired THC/CBD ratio. For example, strains that are used as fiber, called hemp, are bred to be low in THC. Meanwhile, strains used in medicine are bred for high CBD content, and strains used for recreational purposes are typically bred for higher levels of THC. Lastly, a combination of these methods is used to achieve an ideal strain.
While the producer is modifying on a genetic level, we can actually see the results of selective breeding and hybridization on a much larger scale. If we look at the evolution of THC in cannabis over the years, studies have shown that cannabis is increasing in THC potency. In 2015 a lab in Colorado analyzed 600 samples of marijuana, showing that its THC potency has risen by a factor three in the last few decades. Presumably, THC has risen because of market demand. And where there is demand, there are producers to follow suit, using selective breeding and hybridization to craft what consumers want.
Cannabis Science of Crafting Terpenes
Terpenes are compounds responsible for flavors and aromas, in essence, the phenotype of cannabis. There are over 100 different types of terpenes in cannabis and they are built for adaptive purposes such as repelling bugs and attracting pollinators. Hence, the factors that affect terpene varieties are largely environmental. Terpene varieties and their strength can be modified by controlling changes in climate and soil through induced mutations.
Induced mutations are the process of inducing a trait in a plant by controlling it environmental conditions. When the soil composition and the climate is controlled, terpene composition of a cannabis plant can be modified, delivering the unique flavor and aroma profile of the final product. However, because cannabis has been illegally grown for so long, there isn’t, yet, much scientific documentation on how conditions precisely affect a strain’s terpene composition. While the industry does have an intuition for the climate and soil qualities needed to create skunkier or fruitier aromas, there is very little consistency amongst the strains. If you’ve ever become a fan to particular strain, like OG Kush or Sour Diesel, you may have noticed a lack of consistency in the flavors and aromas of the same strain from different sources. Sometimes the sample may not bear any resemblance to the known strain and largely this is due inconsistency in growing environments. In the future, with more research and documentation, cannabis science will reveal the specifics of how changes in light, humidity, and soil affect the flavor and aromas of a strain.
Like the way, we bred wolves to look like retrievers or the way we cultivated grapes to produce unique wines, as humans, we like plants and animals to evolve to our desires. Unfortunately, because of its politics, cannabis has not been given the same opportunity. Though the time has come and cannabis science is making leaps and bounds so that, it too, can be crafty. From relaxing in nature to optimizing for a project, there will be a unique cannabis for every experience.