Tag Archives: breeding

Marijuana Matters

Patent Options Available for Breeding Cannabis

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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Patent No.: 909554. Date of patent: August 4, 2015. Years from now, historians and academics may look back on this patent number and date as a watershed mark in the evolution of legal cannabis. Feel free to read the 147 pages of the patent documents but, in short, it “leads to many innovations, provides compositions and methods for breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis.” It was the first time that the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) had issued a patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC. One USPTO spokesman recently discussed with a journalist that “there are no special statutory requirements or restrictions applied to marijuana plants.” The following is a broad, and I mean really broad, overview of the options available to protect intellectual property within the cannabis species and strain realm.

Generally speaking, to be patent eligible, an invention must be useful, it must be new, it cannot be obvious and it must be described in a manner so that people of skill in the relevant specialty can understand what the invention is, make it and use it without engaging in undue experimentation. In terms of cannabis, essentially the breeder must have created a new and non-obvious strain over what already exists that is useful such as being highly resistant to molds or having a specific concentration of CBD.

Breeders potentially have a number of options available to them, despite the common belief otherwise. In the U.S. there are five types of intellectual property protection that breeders can obtain for new plant varieties or their use of clones:

One may seek protection for seeds and tubers, known as Plant Variety Protection. A tuber is essentially a swelled root that forms a storage organ. The Plant Variety Protection Office provides this protection. To apply for Plant Variety Protection, the applicant submits information to show that the variety is new, distinct, uniform and stable.

For asexually propagated plants except for tubers, a Plant Patent may be sought. These are sought through the USPTO. This is relatively inexpensive compared with a Utility Patent covering the genetics.

Trade secrets are often used to protect inventions that will not be commercially available or cannot be reverse engineered. For example, if a new strain is invented but is only commercially available in its final form, trade secret protection may be the best form. The most important thing to remember is that a company must follow a strict set of requirements to keep the trade secret confidential.

The last patent type protection could be through a Utility Patent. A Utility Patent can be issued for any type of plant showing its utility. These are issued by the USPTO. Seeking and obtaining a Utility Patent is expensive and complex.

In addition to Patent Protection, breeders may seek Contractual Agreements restricting the use of the clones (i.e. a material use agreement). The parameters that a breeder wishes to craft can essentially be crafted into the language of any type of agreement that is drafted to memorialize the relationship and terms between the parties.

A few broad-stroke items to keep in mind with regard to patents particularly relative to the patenting of cannabis strains and the like: First, is the passage of the America Invents Act which among other changes allowed for the U.S. to transition from a First-to-Invent patent system to a system where priority is given to the first inventor to file a patent application. Second, there are the potential bars based on different types of prior use.

Any discussion about the foregoing topic should necessarily include the question: Is it really good for the cannabis industry and its evolution? The dialogue moves out of one steeped in tradition, lure of trips through mountain passages, and potentially patient benefit or in search of higher quality and into connotations of business law and big businesses sweeping in to take over. It is an expensive process. It may be inevitable. In the meantime, protect yourself as best you can and as you see fit.

An Introduction to Cannabis Genetics, Part II

By Dr. CJ Schwartz
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Plants and animals have roughly 25,000 to 30,000 genes. The genes provide the information needed to make a protein, and proteins are the building blocks for all biological organisms. An ideal analogy is a blueprint (DNA) for an alternator (the protein) in a car (the plant). Proteins are the ‘parts’ for living things. Some proteins will work better than others, leading to visible differences that we call phenotypes.

geneticspaintedchromMany traits, and the genes controlling them, are of interest to the cannabis industry. For hemp seed oil, quality, quantity and content can be manipulated through breeding natural genetic variants. Hemp fibers are already some of the best in nature, due to their length and strength. Finding the genes and proteins responsible for elongating the fibers can allow for the breeding of hemp for even longer fibers. In cannabis, the two most popular genes are THCA and CBDA synthases. There are currently over 100 sequences of the THCAS/CBDAS genes, and many natural DNA variations are known. We can make a family tree using just the THCAS, gene data and identify ‘branches’ that result in high, low or intermediate THCA levels. Generally most of the DNA changes have little to no effect on the gene, but some of the changes can have profound effects.

In fact, CBDAS and THCAS are related, in other words, they have a common ancestor. At some point the gene went through changes that resulted in the protein producing CDBA, or THCA or both. This is further supported by the fact that certain CBDAS can produce some THCA, and vice-versa. Studies into the THCAS and CBDAS family are ongoing and extensive, with terpene synthase genes following close behind.

Identifying gene (genetic) variants and characterizing their biological function allows us to combine certain genes in specific combinations to maximize yield, but determining which genes are important (gene discovery) is the first step to utilizing marker-assisted breeding.

Gene Discovery & Manipulation

The term genetics is often misused in the cannabis industry. Genetics is actually “the study of heredity and the variation of inherited characteristics.” When people say they have good genetics, what they really mean is that they have good strains, presumably with good gene variants. When people begin to cross or stabilize strains, they are performing genetic manipulation.Slide1

A geneticist will observe or measure two strains of interest, for example a plant branching and myrcene production. The high-myrcene plant is tall and skinny with no branching, reducing the yield. Crossing the two strains will produce F1 hybrid seeds. In some cases, F1 hybrids create unique desirable phenotypes (synergy) and the breeder’s work is completed. More often, traits act additively, thus we would expect the F1 to be of medium branching and medium myrcene production, a value between that of the values recorded for the parents (additive). Crossing F1 plants will produce an F2 population. An F2 population is comprised of the genes from both parents all mixed up. In this case we would expect the F2 progeny to have many different phenotypes. In our example, 25% of the plants would branch like parent A, and 25% of the F2 plants will have high myrcene like parent B. To get a plant with good branching and high myrcene, we predict that 6.25% (25% x 25%) of the F2 plants would have the correct combination.

The above-described scenario is how geneticists assign gene function, or generally called gene discovery. When the gene for height or branching is identified, it can now be tracked at the DNA level versus the phenotype level. In the above example, 93.5% of your F2 plants can be discarded, there is no need to grow them all to maturity and measure all of their phenotypes.Slide1

The most widely used method for gene discovery using natural genetic variation is by quantitative trait loci mapping (QTL). For these types of experiments, hundreds of plants are grown, phenotyped and genotyped and the data is statistically analyzed for correlations between genes (genotype) and traits (phenotype; figure). For example, all high-myrcene F2 plants will have one gene in common responsible for high myrcene, while all the other genes in those F2 plants will be randomly distributed, thus explaining the need for robust statistics. In this scenario, a gene conferring increased myrcene production has been discovered and can now be incorporated into an efficient marker-assisted breeding program to rapidly increase myrcene production in other desirable strains.

CannaGrow: Education on the Science of Cultivation

By Aaron G. Biros
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The CannaGrow Conference & Expo, held in San Diego on May 7th and 8th, educated attendees on the science of cannabis cultivation. The conference brought subject matter experts from around the country to discuss cannabis breeding and genetics, soil science and cultivation facility design.rsz_img_5038

Discussions at the conference delved deep into the science behind growing while providing some expert advice. Drew Plebani, chief executive officer of Commercial Cultivator, Inc., gave a comprehensive review of soil ecology and how understanding soil fertility is crucial to successfully growing consistent cannabis. “Soil fertility is measured by laboratories in terms of soil minerals, plant-available nutrients, percent of organic materials, pH levels and most importantly the balance of the soil’s chemical makeup,” says Plebani. “There is no silver bullet in soil ecology; increasing your soil fertility comes down to understanding the composition of soil with analytical testing.” Plebani went on to add that soil systems for cannabis need to be slightly fungal-dominant in developing an endomycorrhizal system, which is optimal for cannabis plant growth.

Plebani notes that growth and viability are reliant on maximum root mass.
Plebani notes that growth and viability are reliant on maximum root mass.

Tom Lauerman, colloquially known as Farmer Tom and founder of Farmer Tom Organics, kicked off the conference with an introduction to cultivation techniques. Lauerman also delved into his experience working with federal agencies in conducting the first ever health hazard evaluation (HHE) for cannabis with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Through the HHE program, NIOSH responds to requests for evaluations of workplace health hazards, which are then enforced by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Lauerman worked with those federal agencies, allowing them to tour his cultivation facilities to perform an HHE for cannabis processing worker safety. “I was honored to introduce those federal agencies to cannabis and I think this is a great step toward normalizing cannabis by getting the federal government involved on the ground level,” says Lauerman. Through the presentation, Lauerman emphasized the importance of working with NIOSH and OSHA to show federal agencies how the cannabis production industry emerged from the black market, branding itself with a sense of legitimacy.

Attendees flocked to Jacques and his team after the presentation to meet them.
Attendees flocked to Jacques and his team after the presentation to meet them.

Adam Jacques, award-winning cultivator and owner of Grower’s Guild Gardens, discussed his success in breeding CBD-dominant strains and producing customized whole-plant extractions for specific patients’ needs. “I find higher percentages of CBD in plants harvested slightly earlier than you would for a high-THC strain,” says Jacques. “Using closed-loop carbon dioxide extraction equipment, we can use multiple strains to homogenize an oil dialed in for each patient’s specific needs.” As a huge proponent of the Entourage Effect, Jacques stressed the importance of full plant extraction using fractionation with carbon dioxide. He also stressed the importance of analytical testing at every step during processing.

Hildenbrand discussing some of the lesser-known terpenoids yet to be studied.
Hildenbrand discussing some of the lesser-known terpenoids yet to be studied.

Zacariah Hildenbrand, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at C4 Laboratories, provided the 30,000-foot view of the science behind compounds in cannabis, their interactions and his research. With the help of their DEA license, he started the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative, where they are working with Dr. Kevin Schug at the University of Texas-Arlington to screen various cannabis strains to discover new molecules and characterize their structure. “Secondarily, we are using gene expression profiles and analysis to understand the human physiological response and the mechanism through which they elicit that response,” says Hildenbrand. “As this research evolves, we should look to epigenetics and understanding how genes are expressed.” His collaborative effort uses Shimadzu’s Vacuum Ultraviolet Spectroscopy (VUV), and they use the only VUV instrument in an academic laboratory in the United States. “Pharmaceuticals are supposed to be a targeted therapy and that is where we need to go with cannabis,” says Hildenbrand. Him and his team at C4 Laboratories want to work on the discovery of new terpenes and analyze their potential benefits, which could be significant research for cannabis medicine.

Other important topics at the conference included facility design and optimization regarding efficient technologies such as LED lighting and integrated pest management.

An Introduction to Cannabis Genetics, Part I

By Dr. CJ Schwartz
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What is DNA?

DNA stores information about how to build an organism. Just as a series of 0’s and 1’s represents digital data, DNA data is represented by four letters (A, C, G and T), which inherently allows DNA to store more information per unit (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

The amount of DNA required to build a human is mind-boggling. The human genome has 3.2 billion A’s, C’s, G’s, or T’s, (called nucleotides). Cannabis has 820 million nucleotides. This is true for every cell in the organism. The DNA from a single human cell when spread out would stretch six feet long. A cell is not visible to the naked eye, yet it contains a microscopic thread of DNA six feet long! If you put all the DNA molecules in your body end to end, the DNA would reach from the Earth to the Sun.

DNA is common in all living things, and all living things are related through DNA. Humans and plants share 50% of their genes. In humans, 99.9% of the DNA is identical, thus just 0.1% of DNA differences accounts for all of the variation observed in humans. Cannabis, as a species, is more variable with approximately 1% of the DNA being different among strains. DNA is a super efficient and reliable information storage system. However, mistakes (mutations) do occur and while infrequent, these mutations account for all the differences observed within a species and is called natural genetic variation. Variation within the genomes of a species can help the species survive in unfavorable conditions (evolution) and is also the source of differences in traits, which is the material that is required for successful breeding.

Natural Genetic Variation

DNA mutations occur in every generation and these changes will be different in each individual creating natural genetic variation. Mutations (or more accurately referred to as DNA changes) will be inherited by offspring and will persist in the population if the offspring reproduce.

Figure 2
Figure 2

DNA differences maintain diversity in the gene pool, allowing organisms to respond to new environments (migration) or environmental changes (adaptation). The two most commonly described cannabis families are Indicas and Sativas. Indicas, being from cooler temperate regions, have wide leaves allowing the maximum capture of light during the shorter growing season. Sativas, being equatorial, have smaller leaves, which may be an advantage for such things as powdery mildew in a humid environment. Figure 2 shows the enormous amount of natural variation in leaves for one species with a worldwide population (Arabidopsis thaliana).

A DNA change that occurred a long time ago will be more useful to divide people/plants into different groups. For example, there are ancient DNA changes that differentiate humans originating from Europe or Asia. Other newer DNA changes allow us to further divide Europeans into those originating from Northern versus Southern Europe. Thus, different DNA changes have different values for determining relatedness or ancestry, yet every DNA change provides some information for determining heredity.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Family Trees

By comparing DNA changes among different strains, we can measure the relatedness between strains. For example, if strain A has a DNA change indicative of Kush ancestry and strain B has a DNA change indicative of hemp ancestry, we can assign strains to branches of the cannabis family tree comprised of strains that contain similar DNA changes. Figure 3 shows 184 strains that have been characterized for these changes, and the position of each strain is based on its shared DNA with neighboring strains. The two best-defined families of cannabis are hemp (blue) and kush (black). Strains within a family are more closely related. Strains in separate families, such as kush and hemp, are more distantly related.


 

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series of articles focused on answering common questions regarding cannabis genetics. If you have questions regarding cannabis genetics, or wish to speak more about the topic please post in the comments section below. The next installment will delve into the THC synthase, gene discovery and manipulation and mapping chromosomes.