Tag Archives: Aspergillus

3 Essential Components of Microbial Safety Testing

By Heather Ebling
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Microbial contamination on cannabis products represents one of the most significant threats to cannabis consumers, particularly immunocompromised patients who are at risk of developing harmful and potentially fatal infections.

As a result, regulatory bodies in the United States and Canada mandate testing cannabis products for certain microbes. The two most popular methods for microbial safety testing in the cannabis industry are culture-based testing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR).

When considering patient safety, labs should choose a method that provides an accurate account of what is living on the sample and can specifically target the most harmful microbes, regardless of the matrix.

1. The Method’s Results Must Accurately Reflect the Microbial Population on the Sample

The main objective of any microbial safety test is to give the operator an indication of the microbial population present on the sample.

Figure 1: MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.

Culture-based methods measure contamination by observing how many organisms grow in a given medium. However, not all microbial organisms grow at the same rate. In some cases, certain organisms will out-compete others and as a result, the population in a post-culture environment is radically different than what was on the original sample.

One study analyzed fifteen medicinal cannabis samples using two commercially available culture-based methods. To enumerate and differentiate bacteria and fungi present before and after growth on culture-based media, all samples were further subjected to next-generation sequencing (NGS) and metagenomic analyses (MA). Figure 1 illustrates MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.

The results demonstrate substantial shifts in bacterial and fungal growth after culturing on the 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms. Thus, the final composition of microbes after culturing is markedly different from the starting sample. Most concerning is the frequent identification of bacterial species in systems designed for the exclusive quantification of yeast and mold, as quantified by elevated total aerobic count (TAC) Cq values after culture in the total yeast and mold (TYM) medium. The presence of bacterial colonies on TYM growth plates or cartridges may falsely increase the rejection rate of cannabis samples for fungal contamination. These observations call into question the specificity claims of these platforms.

The Live Dead Problem

Figure 2: The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added

One of the common objections to using qPCR for microbial safety testing is the fact that the method does not distinguish between live and dead DNA. PCR primers and probes will amplify any DNA in the sample that matches the target sequence, regardless of viability. Critics claim that this can lead to false positives because DNA from non-viable organisms can inflate results. This is often called the Live-Dead problem. However, scientists have developed multiple solutions to this problem. Most recently, Medicinal Genomics developed the Grim Reefer Free DNA Removal Kit, which eliminates free DNA contained in a sample by simply adding an enzyme and buffer and incubating for 10 minutes. The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added, which prevents the Grim Reefer Enzyme from eliminating DNA when the viable cells are lysed (see Figure 2).

2. Method Must Be Able to Detect Specific Harmful Species 

Toxic Aspergillus spp., which is responsible for at least one confirmed death of a cannabis patient, grows poorly in culture mediums and is severely underreported by current culture-based platforms. And even when Aspergillus does grow in culture, there is a certain non-pathogenic Aspergillus species that look remarkably similar to their pathogenic cousins, making it difficult to speciate using visual identification alone.

Figure 3: The team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments

Conversely, qPCR assays, such as the PathoSEEK, are designed to target DNA sequences that are unique to pathogenic Aspergillus species, and they can be run using standard qPCR instruments such as the Agilent AriaMx. The primers are so specific that a single DNA base difference in the sequence can determine whether binding occurs. This specificity reduces the frequency of false positives in pathogen detection, a frequent problem with culture-based cannabis testing methods.

Additionally, Medicinal Genomics has developed a multiplex assay that can detect the four pathogenic species of Aspergillus (A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus) in a single reaction.

3. The Method Must Work on Multiple Matrices 

Figure 4: The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control.

Marijuana infused products (MIPs) are a very diverse class of matrices that behave very differently than cannabis flowers. Gummy bears, chocolates, oils and tinctures all present different challenges to culture-based techniques as the sugars and carbohydrates can radically alter the carbon sources available for growth. To assess the impact of MIPs on colony-forming units per gram of sample (CFU/g) enumeration, The Medicinal Genomics team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments: tryptic soy broth (TSB), hemp oil and hard candy. The team then homogenized the samples, pipetted amounts from each onto 3M™ Petrifilm E. coli / Coliform Count (EC) Plates, and incubated for 96 hours. The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control. Figures 3 and 4 show the results in 24-hour intervals.

Table 1: DNA was spiked into various MIPs

This implies the MIPs are interfering with the reporter assay on the films or that the MIPs are antiseptic in nature.

Many MIPs use citric acid as a flavoring ingredient which may interfere with 3M reporter chemistry. In contrast, the qPCR signal from the Agilent AriaMx was constant, implying there is microbial contamination present on the films, but the colony formation or reporting is inhibited.

Table 3: SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes
Table 2: Different numbers of DNA copies spiked into chocolate

This is not an issue with DNA-based methods, so long as the DNA extraction method has been validated on these matrices. For example, the SenSATIVAx DNA extraction method is efficient in different matrices, DNA was spiked into various MIPs as shown in Table 1, and at different numbers of DNA copies into chocolate (Table 2). The SenSATIVAx DNA extraction kit successfully captures the varying levels of DNA, and the PathoSEEK detection assay can successfully detect that range of DNA. Table 3 demonstrates that SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes that may be present on cannabis for a variety of organisms spiked onto cannabis flower samples.

The Best Way to Remediate Moldy Cannabis is No Remediation at All

By Ingo Mueller
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Consumers are largely unaware that most commercial cannabis grown today undergoes some form of decontamination to treat the industry’s growing problem of mold, yeast and other microbial pathogens. As more cannabis brands fail regulatory testing for contaminants, businesses are increasingly turning to radiation, ozone gas, hydrogen peroxide or other damaging remediation methods to ensure compliance and avoid product recalls. It has made cannabis cultivation and extraction more challenging and more expensive than ever, not to mention inflaming the industry’s ongoing supply problem.

The problem is only going to get worse as states like Nevada and California are beginning to implement more regulations including even tougher microbial contamination limits. The technological and economic burdens are becoming too much for some cultivators, driving some of them out of business. It’s also putting an even greater strain on them to meet product demand.

It’s critical that the industry establishes new product standards to reassure consumers that the cannabis products they buy are safe. But it is even more critical that the industry look beyond traditional agricultural remediation methods to solve the microbial problems.

Compounding Risks

Mold and other microbial pathogens are found everywhere in the environment, including the air, food and water that people consume. While there is no consensus yet on the health consequences of consuming these contaminants through cannabis, risks are certainly emerging. According to a 2015 study by the Cannabis Safety Institutei, molds are generally harmless in the environment, but some may present a health threat when inhaled, particularly to immunocompromised individuals. Mycotoxins resulting from molds such as Aspergillus can cause illnesses such as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. Even when killed with treatment, the dead pathogens could trigger allergies or asthma.

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

There is an abundance of pathogens that can affect cannabis cultivation, but the most common types are Botrytis (bud rot, sometimes called gray mold) and Powdery Mildew. They are also among the most devastating blights to cannabis crops. Numerous chemical controls are available to help prevent or stem an outbreak, ranging from fungicides and horticultural oils to bicarbonates and biological controls. While these controls may save an otherwise doomed crop, they introduce their own potential health risks through the overexposure and consumption of chemical residues.

The issue is further compounded by the fact that the states in which cannabis is legal can’t agree on which microbial pathogens to test for, nor how to test. Colorado, for instance, requires only three pathogen tests (for salmonella, E. coli, and mycotoxins from mold), while Massachusetts has exceedingly strict testing regulations for clean products. Massachusetts-based testing lab, ProVerde Laboratories, reports that approximately 30% of the cannabis flowers it tests have some kind of mold or yeast contamination.

If a cannabis product fails required microbial testing and can’t be remedied in a compliant way, the grower will inevitably experience a severe – and potentially crippling – financial hit to a lost crop. Willow Industries, a microbial remediation company, says that cannabis microbial contamination is projected to be a $3 billion problem by 2020ii.

Remediation Falls Short
With the financial stakes so high, the cannabis industry has taken cues from the food industry and adopted a variety of ways to remediate cannabis harvests contaminated with pathogens. Ketch DeGabrielle of Qloris Consulting spent two years studying cannabis microbial remediation methods and summarized their pros and consiii.

He found that some common sterilization approaches like autoclaves, steam and dry heat are impractical for cannabis due the decarboxylation and harsh damage they inflict on the product. Some growers spray or immerse cannabis flowers in hydrogen peroxide, but the resulting moisture can actually cause more spores to germinate, while the chemical reduces the terpene content in the flowers.

Powdery mildew starts with white/grey spots seen on the upper leaves surface

The more favored, technologically advanced remediation approaches include ozone or similar gas treatment, which is relatively inexpensive and treats the entire plant. However, it’s difficult to gas products on a large scale, and gas results in terpene loss. Microwaves can kill pathogens effectively through cellular rupture, but can burn the product. Ionizing radiation kills microbial life by destroying their DNA, but the process can create carcinogenic chemical compounds and harmful free radicals. Radio frequency (which DeGabrielle considers the best method) effectively kills yeast and mold by oscillating the water in them, but it can result in moisture and terpene loss.

The bottom line: no remediation method is perfect. Prevention of microbial contamination is a better approach. But all three conventional approaches to cannabis cultivation – outdoors, greenhouses and indoor grow operations – make it extremely difficult to control contamination. Mold spores can easily gain a foothold both indoors and out through air, water, food and human contact, quickly spreading into an epidemic.

The industry needs to establish new quality standards for product purity and employ new growing practices to meet them. Advanced technologies can help create near perfect growing ecosystems and microclimates for growing cannabis free of mold contamination. Internet of Things sensors combined with AI-driven robotics and automation can dramatically reduce human intervention in the growing process, along with human-induced contamination. Natural sunlight supplemented with new lighting technologies that provide near full-light and UV spectrum can stimulate robust growth more resistant to disease. Computational fluid dynamic models can help growers achieve optimal temperature, humidity, velocity, filtration and sanitation of air flow. And tissue culture micropropagation of plant stock can eliminate virus and pathogen threats, to name just a few of the latest innovations.

Growing legal cannabis today is a risky business that can cost growers millions of dollars if pathogens contaminate a crop. Remediation methods to remove microbial contamination may work to varying degrees, but they introduce another set of problems that can impact consumer health and comprise product quality.


References

i. Holmes M, Vyas JM, Steinbach W, McPartland J. 2015. Microbiological Safety Testing of Cannabis. Cannabis Safety Institute. http://cannabissafetyinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Microbiological-Safety-Testing-of-Cannabis.pdf

ii. Jill Ellsworth, June 2019, Eliminating Microbials in Marijuana, Willow Industries, https://willowindustries.com/eliminating-microbials-in-marijuana/#

iii. Ketch DeGabrielle, April 2018, Largest U.S. Cannabis Farm Shares Two Years of Mold Remediation Research, Analytical Cannabis, https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/articles/largest-us-cannabis-farm-shares-two-years-of-mold-remediation-research-299842

 

Fungal Monitoring: An Upstream Approach to Testing Requirements

By Bernie Lorenz, PhD
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Mold is ubiquitous in nature and can be found everywhere.1 Cannabis growers know this all too well – the cannabis plant, by nature, is an extremely mold-susceptible crop, and growers battle it constantly.

Of course, managing mold doesn’t mean eradicating mold entirely – that’s impossible. Instead, cultivation professionals must work to minimize the amount of mold to the point where plants can thrive, and finished products are safe for consumption.

Let’s begin with that end in mind – a healthy plant, grown, cured and packaged for sale. In a growing number of states, there’s a hurdle to clear before the product can be sold to consumers – state-mandated testing.

So how do you ensure that the product clears the testing process within guidelines for mold? And what tools can be employed in biological warfare?

Mold: At Home in Cannabis Plants

It helps to first understand how the cannabis plant becomes an optimal environment.

The cannabis flower was designed to capture pollen floating in the air or brought by a pollinating insect.

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

Once a mold spore has landed in a flower, the spore will begin to grow. The flower will continue to grow as well, and eventually, encapsulate the mold. Once the mold is growing in the middle of the flower, there is no way to get rid of it without damaging the flower.

A Name with Many Varieties

The types of spores found in or around a plant can make or break whether mold will end with bad product.

Aspergillus for example, is a mold that can produce mycotoxins, which are toxic to humans2. For this reason, California has mandatory testing3for certain aspergillus molds.

Another example, Basidiospores, are found outside, in the air. These are spores released from mushrooms and have no adverse effects on cannabis or a cannabis cultivation facility.

Fungi like powdery mildew and botrytis (PM and Bud Rot) typically release spores in the air before they are physically noticed on plants. Mold spores like these can survive from one harvest to the next – they can be suspended in the air for hours and be viable for years.

How Mold Travels

Different types of spores – the reproductive parts of mold – get released from different types of mold. Similar to plants and animals, mold reproduces when resources are deemed sufficient.

The opposite is also true that if the mold is under enough stress, such as a depleting nutrient source, it can be forced into reproduction to save itself.4

In the end, mold spores are released naturally into the air for many reasons, including physical manipulation of a plant, which, of course, is an unavoidable task in a cultivation facility.5

Trimming Areas: A Grow’s Highest Risk for Mold

Because of the almost-constant physical manipulation of plants that happen inside its walls, a grow’s trimming areas typically have the highest spore counts. Even the cleanest of plants will release spores during trimming.

Best practices include quality control protocols while trimming

These rooms also have the highest risk for cross contamination, since frequently, growers dry flower in the same room as they trim. Plus, because trimming can be labor intensive, with a large number of people entering and leaving the space regularly, spores are brought in and pushed out and into another space.

The Battle Against Mold

The prevalence and ubiquitous nature of mold in a cannabis facility means that the fight against it must be smart, and it must be thorough.

By incorporating an upstream approach to facility biosecurity, cultivators can protect themselves against testing failures and profit losses.

Biosecurity must be all encompassing, including everything from standard operating procedures and proper environmental controls, to fresh air exchange and surface sanitation/disinfection.

One of the most effective tactics in an upstream biosecurity effort is fungal monitoring.

Ways to Monitor Mold

Determining the load or amount of mold that is in a facility is and always will be common practice. This occurs in a few ways.

Post-harvest testing is in place to ensure the safety of consumers, but during the growing process, is typically done using “scouting reports.” A scouting report is a human report: when personnel physically inspect all or a portion of the crop. A human report, unfortunately, can lead to human error, and this often doesn’t give a robust view of the facility mold picture.

Another tool is agar plates. These petri dishes can be opened and set in areas suspected to have mold. Air moves past the plate and the mold spores that are viable land on the dishes. However, this process is time intensive, and still doesn’t give a complete picture.

Alternatively, growers can use spore traps to monitor for mold.

Spore traps draw a known volume of air through a cassette.The inside of the cassette is designed to force the air toward a sticky surface, which is capable of capturing spores and other materials. The cassette is sent to a laboratory for analysis, where they will physically count and identify what was captured using a microscope.

Spore trap results can show the entire picture of a facility’s mold concerns. This tool is also fast, able to be read on your own or sent to a third party for quick and unbiased review. The information yielded is a useful indicator for mold load and which types are prevalent in the facility.

Spore Trap Results: A Story Told

What’s going on inside of a facility has a direct correlation to what’s happening outside, since facility air comes infromthe outside. Thus, spore traps are most effective when you compare a trap inside with one set outside.

When comparing the two, you can see what the plants are doing, view propagating mold, and understand which of the spore types are only found inside.

Similar to its use in homes and businesses for human health purposes, monitoring can indicate the location of mold growth in a particular area within a facility.

These counts can be used to determine the efficacy of cleaning and disinfecting a space, or to find water leaks or areas that are consistently wet (mold will grow quickly and produce spores in these areas).

Using Spore Traps to See Seasonality Changes, Learn CCPs

Utilizing spore traps for regular, facility-wide mold monitoring is advantageous for many reasons.

One example: Traps can help determine critical control points (CCP) for mold.

What does this look like? If the spore count is two times higher than usual, mitigating action needs to take place. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies like cleaning and disinfecting the space, or spraying a fungicide, are needed to bring the spore count down to its baseline.

For example, most facilities will see a spike in spore counts during the times of initial flower production/formation (weeks two to three of the flower cycle).

Seasonal trends can be determined, as well, since summer heat and rain will increase the mold load while winter cold may minimize it.

Using Fungal Monitoring in an IPM Strategy

Fungal monitoring – especially using a spore trap – is a critical upstream step in a successful IPM strategy. But it’s not the only step. In fact, there are five:

  • Identify/Monitor… Using a spore trap.
  • Evaluate…Spore trap results will indicate if an action is needed. Elevated spore counts will be the action threshold, but it can also depend on the type of spores found.
  • Prevention…Avoiding mold on plants using quality disinfection protocols as often as possible.
  • Action…What will be done to remedy the presence of mold? Examples include adding disinfection protocols, applying a fungicide, increasing air exchanges, and adding a HEPA filter.
  • Monitor…Constant monitoring is key. More eyes monitoring is better, and will help find Critical Control Points.

Each step must be followed to succeed in the battle against mold.

Of course, in the battle, there may be losses. If you experience a failed mandatory product testing result, use the data from the failure to fix your facility and improve for the future.

The data can be used to determine efficacy of standard operating procedures, action thresholds, and other appropriate actions. Plus, you can add a spore trap analysis for pre- and post- disinfection protocols, showing whether the space was really cleaned and disinfected after application. This will also tell you whether your products are working.

Leveraging all of the tools available will ensure a safe, clean cannabis product for consumers.


References

  1. ASTM D8219-2019: Standard Guide for Cleaning and Disinfection at a Cannabis Cultivation Center (B. Lorenz): http://www.astm.org/cgi-bin/resolver.cgi?D8219-19
  2. Mycotoxin, Aspergillus: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mycotoxins
  3. State of California Cannabis Regulations: https://cannabis.ca.gov/cannabis-regulations/
  4. Asexual Sporulation in Aspergillus nidulans (Thomas H. Adams,* Jenny K. Wieser, and Jae-Hyuk Yu):  https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7eb1/05e73d77ef251f44a2ae91d0595e85c3445e.pdf?_ga=2.38699363.1960083875.1568395121-721294556.1562683339
  5. ASTM standard “Assessment of fungal growth in buildings” Miller, J. D., et al., “Air Sampling Results in Relation to Extent of Fungal Colonization of Building Materials in Some Water Damaged Buildings,” Indoor Air, Vol 10, 2000, pp. 146–151.
  6. Zefon Air O Cell Cassettes: https://www.zefon.com/iaq-sampling-cassettes

Product Release: PathogenDx Announces New Products, Branding

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to a press release published earlier this week, PathogenDx, Inc., is expanding their product portfolio and doing some rebranding. The DNA-based pathogen detection testing provider, headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, produces microarray testing platforms for the cannabis, agriculture and food and beverage industries. Their rapid testing technology can reportedly identify and detect 50+ pathogens all in a single test, including common pathogens such as E. Coli, Salmonella and Aspergillus.

Here is a look at their new product suite, taken from the press release:

  • DetectX – Tests for the presence of pathogenic microbial organisms down to a single organism, at less than 0.1 CFU/gram for state regulated compliance. Test 96 or more samples a day for multiple state mandated microbial pathogens, with product safety certainty delivered in 6 hours, far more rapid than current industry standards of 72 hours or more.

  • QuantX – The world’s first quantification microarray test for Cannabis. This test measures the microbial load in a sample, while also providing discrimination of the organism content relative to testing standards. Regulatory agencies will now have the opportunity to improve microbial testing standards to ensure safety.

  • EnviroX – With a single swab, one can identify 50+ species and classes of microbes, with quick-turn results, by simply swabbing a grower/cultivation facility surfaces and vents. Submit, identify, and remediate. It’s that simple to mitigate risk to high-value crops.

  • PhytoX – Coming in Summer of 2019, PathogenDx will introduce the ultra-rapid, easy plant pathogen test to detect powdery mildew, gray mold, mites and other microbial bugs that can become destructive threats to one’s crop. Acquire results in 6 hours to intercept and redress infestation that can destroy one’s yield.

According to CEO and Co-Founder Milan Patel, they want their technology to set the standard for product safety testing. “We’re making the accurate testing of cannabis, food and agriculture faster, more definitive and less expensive with trackable results benefitting growers, producers, regulators and consumers worldwide,” says Patel. “Our new brand is inspired by our unique microplex array and is bright, fresh, memorable and expansive, enabling us to move from cannabis only to much larger global consumable markets where we can continue to offer new products and applications for the technology.”

This announcement comes as the company is positioning itself to expand far beyond just the cannabis testing arena, diving into the food and beverage and agriculture industries with a much stronger presence. As recently as late February, the company announced purchases of new real estate, expanding their production capacity, as well as announcing a few key hires, expanding their leadership team. 

Swetha Kaul, PhD

Colorado vs. California: Two Different Approaches to Mold Testing in Cannabis

By Swetha Kaul, PhD
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Swetha Kaul, PhD

Across the country, there is a patchwork of regulatory requirements that vary from state to state. Regulations focus on limiting microbial impurities (such as mold) present in cannabis in order for consumers to receive a safe product. When cultivators in Colorado and Nevada submit their cannabis product to laboratories for testing, they are striving to meet total yeast and mold count (TYMC) requirements.In a nascent industry, it is prudent for state regulators to reference specific testing methodologies so that an industry standard can be established.

TYMC refers to the number of colony forming units present per gram (CFU/g) of cannabis material tested. CFU is a method of quantifying and reporting the amount of live yeast or mold present in the cannabis material being tested. This number is determined by plating the sample, which involves spreading the sample evenly in a container like a petri dish, followed by an incubation period, which provides the ideal conditions for yeast and mold to grow and multiply. If the yeast and mold cells are efficiently distributed on a plate, it is assumed that each live cell will give rise to a single colony. Each colony produces a visible spot on the plate and this represents a single CFU. Counting the numbers of CFU gives an accurate estimate on the number of viable cells in the sample.

The plate count methodology for TYMC is standardized and widely accepted in a variety of industries including the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. The FDA has published guidelines that specify limits on total yeast and mold counts ranging from 10 to 100,000 CFU/g. In cannabis testing, a TYMC count of 10,000 is commonly used. TYMC is also approved by the AOAC for testing a variety of products, such as food and cosmetics, for yeast and mold. It is a fairly easy technique to perform requiring minimal training, and the overall cost tends to be relatively low. It can be utilized to differentiate between dead and live cells, since only viable living cells produce colonies.

Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus
Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus.
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

There is a 24 to 48-hour incubation period associated with TYMC and this impedes speed of testing. Depending on the microbial levels in a sample, additional dilution of a cannabis sample being tested may be required in order to count the cells accurately. TYMC is not species-specific, allowing this method to cover a broad range of yeast and molds, including those that are not considered harmful. Studies conducted on cannabis products have identified several harmful species of yeast and mold, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus, Penicillium and Botrytis Cinerea. Non-pathogenic molds have also been shown to be a source of allergic hypersensitivity reactions. The ability of TYMC to detect only viable living cells from such a broad range of yeast and mold species may be considered an advantage in the newly emerging cannabis industry.

After California voted to legalize recreational marijuana, state regulatory agencies began exploring different cannabis testing methods to implement in order to ensure clean cannabis for the large influx of consumers.

Unlike Colorado, California is considering a different route and the recently released emergency regulations require testing for specific species of Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus). While Aspergillus can also be cultured and plated, it is difficult to differentiate morphological characteristics of each species on a plate and the risk of misidentification is high. Therefore, positive identification would require the use of DNA-based methods such as polymerase chain reaction testing, also known as PCR. PCR is a molecular biology technique that can detect species-specific strains of mold that are considered harmful through the amplification and analysis of DNA sequences present in cannabis. The standard PCR testing method can be divided into four steps:

  1. The double stranded DNA in the cannabis sample is denatured by heat. This refers to splitting the double strand into single strands.
  2. Primers, which are short single-stranded DNA sequences, are added to align with the corresponding section of the DNA. These primers can be directly or indirectly labeled with fluorescence.
  3. DNA polymerase is introduced to extend the sequence, which results in two copies of the original double stranded DNA. DNA polymerases are enzymes that create DNA molecules by assembling nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA.
  4. Once the double stranded DNA is created, the intensity of the resulting fluorescence signal can uncover the presence of specific species of harmful Aspergillus mold, such as fumigatus.

These steps can be repeated several times to amplify a very small amount of DNA in a sample. The primers will only bind to the corresponding sequence of DNA that matches that primer and this allows PCR to be very specific.

PCR testing is used in a wide variety of applications
PCR testing is used in a wide variety of applications
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

PCR is a very sensitive and selective method with many applications. However, the instrumentation utilized can be very expensive, which would increase the overall cost of a compliance test. The high sensitivity of the method for the target DNA means that there are possibilities for a false positive. This has implications in the cannabis industry where samples that test positive for yeast and mold may need to go through a remediation process to kill the microbial impurities. These remediated samples may still fail a PCR-based microbial test due to the presence of the DNA. Another issue with the high selectivity of this method is that other species of potentially harmful yeast and mold would not even be detected. PCR is a technique that requires skill and training to perform and this, in turn, adds to the high overall cost of the test.

Both TYMC and PCR have associated advantages and disadvantages and it is important to take into account the cost, speed, selectivity, and sensitivity of each method. The differences between the two methodologies would lead to a large disparity in testing standards amongst labs in different states. In a nascent industry, it is prudent for state regulators to reference specific testing methodologies so that an industry standard can be established.

Swetha Kaul, PhD

An Insider’s View: How Labs Conduct Cannabis Mold Testing

By Swetha Kaul, PhD
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Swetha Kaul, PhD

As both recreational and medical cannabis legalization continues to progress across the country, each state is tasked with developing regulatory requirements to ensure that customers and patients receive clean cannabis for consumption. This requires cannabis to undergo laboratory testing that analyzes the presence of microbial impurities including yeast and mold.

Some states, such as Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Illinois and Massachusetts use total yeast and mold count testing (TYMC) and set a maximum yeast and mold count threshold that cultivators must fall below. Other states, such as California, require the detection of species-specific strains of Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus), which requires analyzing the DNA of a cannabis sample through polymerase chain reaction testing, also known as PCR.

Differences in state regulations can lead to different microbiological techniques implemented for testing.Before diving in further, it is important to understand the scientific approach. Laboratory testing requirements for cannabis can be separated into two categories: analytical chemistry methods and microbiological methods.

Analytical chemistry is the science of qualitatively and quantitatively determining the chemical components of a substance, and usually consists of some kind of separation followed by detection. Analytical methods are used to uncover the potency of cannabis, analyze the terpene profile and to detect the presence of pesticides, chemical residues, residuals solvents, heavy metals and mycotoxins. Analytical testing methods are performed first before proceeding to microbiological methods.

Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus
Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus. It produces carcinogenic aflatoxins, which can contaminate certain foods and cause aspergillosis, an invasive fungal disease.
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

Microbiological methods dive deeper into cannabis at a cellular level to uncover microbial impurities such as yeast, mold and bacteria. The techniques utilized in microbiological methods are very different from traditional analytical chemistry methods in both the way they are performed and target of the analysis. Differences in state regulations can lead to different microbiological techniques implemented for testing. There are a variety of cell and molecular biology techniques that can be used for detecting microbial impurities, but most can be separated into two categories:

  1. Methods to determine total microbial cell numbers, which typically utilizes cell culture, which involves growing cells in favorable conditions and plating, spreading the sample evenly in a container like a petri dish. The total yeast and mold count (TYMC) test follows this method.
  2. Molecular methods intended to detect specific species of mold, such as harmful aspergillus mold strains, which typically involves testing for the presence of unique DNA sequences such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).


Among states that have legalized some form of cannabis use and put forth regulations, there appears to be a broad consensus that the laboratories should test for potency (cannabinoids concentration), pesticides (or chemical residues) and residual solvents at a minimum. On the other hand, microbial testing requirements, particularly for mold, appear to vary greatly from state to state. Oregon requires random testing for mold and mildew without any details on test type. In Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Illinois and Massachusetts, regulations explicitly state the use of TYMC for the detection of mold. In California, the recently released emergency regulations require testing for specific species of
Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus), which are difficult to differentiate on a plate and would require a DNA-based approach. Since there are differences in costs associated and data produced by these methods, this issue will impact product costs for cultivators, which will affect cannabis prices for consumers.

 

Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know

By Parastoo Yaghmaee, PhD
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Editor’s note: This article should serve as a foundation of knowledge for yeast and mold in cannabis. Beginning in January 2018, we will publish a series of articles focused entirely on yeast and mold, discussing topics such as TYMC testing, preventing yeast and mold in cultivation and treatment methods to reduce yeast and mold.


Cannabis stakeholders, including cultivators, extractors, brokers, distributors and consumers, have been active in the shadows for decades. With the legalization of recreational adult use in several states, and more on the way, safety of the distributed product is one of the main concerns for regulators and the public. Currently, Colorado1, Nevada and Canada2 require total yeast and mold count (TYMC) compliance testing to evaluate whether or not cannabis is safe for human consumption. As the cannabis industry matures, it is likely that TYMC or other stringent testing for yeast and mold will be adopted in the increasingly regulated medical and recreational markets.

The goal of this article is to provide general information on yeast and mold, and to explain why TYMC is an important indicator in determining cannabis safety.

Yeast & Mold

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

Yeast and mold are members of the fungi family. Fungus, widespread in nature, can be found in the air, water, soil, vegetation and in decaying matter. The types of fungus found in different geographic regions vary based upon humidity, soil and other environmental conditions. In general, fungi can grow in a wide range of pH environments and temperatures, and can survive in harsh conditions that bacteria cannot. They are not able to produce their own food like plants, and survive by breaking down material from their surroundings into nutrients. Mold cannot thrive in an environment with limited oxygen, while yeast is able to grow with or without oxygen. Most molds, if grown for a long enough period, can be detected visually, while yeast growth is usually detected by off-flavor and fermentation.

Due to their versatility, it is rare to find a place or surface that is naturally free of fungi or their spores. Damp conditions, poor air quality and darker areas are inviting environments for yeast and mold growth.

Cannabis plants are grown in both indoor and outdoor conditions. Plants grown outdoors are exposed to wider ranges and larger populations of fungal species compared to indoor plants. However, factors such as improper watering, the type of soil and fertilizer and poor air circulation can all increase the chance of mold growth in indoor environments. Moreover, secondary contamination is a prevalent risk from human handling during harvest and trimming for both indoor and outdoor-grown cannabis. If humidity and temperature levels of drying and curing rooms are not carefully controlled, the final product could also easily develop fungi or their growth by-product.

 What is TYMC?

TYMC, or total yeast and mold count, is the number of colony forming units present per gram of product (CFU/g). A colony forming unit is the scientific means of counting and reporting the population of live bacteria or yeast and mold in a product. To determine the count, the cannabis sample is plated on a petri dish which is then incubated at a specific temperature for three to five days. During this time, the yeast and mold present will grow and reproduce. Each colony, which represents an individual or a group of yeast and mold, produces one spot on the petri dish. Each spot is considered one colony forming unit.

Why is TYMC Measured?

TYMC is an indicator of the overall cleanliness of the product’s life cycle: growing environment, processing conditions, material handling and storage facilities. Mold by itself is not considered “bad,” but having a high mold count, as measured by TYMC, is alarming and could be detrimental to both consumers and cultivators. 

Aspergillus species niger
Photo: Carlos de Paz, Flickr

The vast majority of mold and yeast present in the environment are indeed harmless, and even useful to humans. Some fungi are used commercially in production of fermented food, industrial alcohol, biodegradation of waste material and the production of antibiotics and enzymes, such as penicillin and proteases. However, certain fungi cause food spoilage and the production of mycotoxin, a fungal growth by-product that is toxic to humans and animals. Humans absorb mycotoxins through inhalation, skin contact and ingestion. Unfortunately, mycotoxins are very stable and withstand both freezing and cooking temperatures. One way to reduce mycotoxin levels in a product is to have a low TYMC.

Aspergillus flavus on culture.
Photo: Iqbal Osman, Flickr

Yeast and mold have been found to be prevalent in cannabis in both current and previous case studies. In a 2017 UC Davis study, 20 marijuana samples obtained from Northern California dispensaries were found to contain several yeast and mold species, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus.3 The same results were reported in 1983, when marijuana samples collected from 14 cannabis smokers were analyzed. All of the above mold species in the 2017 study were present in 13 out of 14 marijuana samples.4

Aspergillus species niger, flavus, and fumigatus are known for aflatoxin production, a type of dangerous mycotoxin that can be lethal.5 Once a patient smokes and/or ingests cannabis with mold, the toxins and/or spores can thrive inside the lungs and body.6, 7 There are documented fatalities and complications in immunocompromised patients smoking cannabis with mold, including patients with HIV and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the elderly.8, 9, 10, 11

For this reason, regulations exist to limit the allowable TYMC counts for purposes of protecting consumer safety. At the time of writing this article, the acceptable limit for TYMC in cannabis plant material in Colorado, Nevada and Canada is ≤10,000 CFU/g. Washington state requires a mycotoxin test.12 California is looking into testing for specific Aspergillus species as a part of their requirement. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and advance, it is likely that additional states will adopt some form of TYMC testing into their regulatory testing requirements.

References:

  1. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Complete%20Retail%20Marijuana%20Rules%20as%20of%20April%2014%202017.pdf
  2. http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/f-27/
  3. https://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/news/newsroom/11791
  4. Kagen SL, Kurup VP, Sohnle PG, Fink JN. 1983. Marijuana smoking and fungal sensitization. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 71(4): 389-393.
  5. Centre for Disease control and prevention. 2004 Outbreak of Aflatoxin Poisoning – Eastern and central provinces, Kenya, Jan – July 2004. Morbidity and mortality weekly report.. Sep 3, 2004: 53(34): 790-793
  6. Cescon DW, Page AV, Richardson S, Moore MJ, Boerner S, Gold WL. 2008. Invasive pulmonary Aspergillosis associated with marijuana use in a man with colorectal cancer. Diagnosis in Oncology. 26(13): 2214-2215.
  7. Szyper-Kravits M, Lang R, Manor Y, Lahav M. 2001 Early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in a leukemia patient linked to aspergillus contaminated marijuana smoking. Leukemia Lymphoma 42(6): 1433 – 1437.
  8. Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
  9. Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
  10. McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
  11. Hamadeh R, Ardehali A, Locksley RM, York MK. 1983. Fatal aspergillosis associated with smoking contaminated marijuana, in a marrow transplant recipient. Chest. 94(2): 432-433.
  12. http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=314-55-102