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Pesticide Remediation by CPC

By Arpad Konczol, PhD
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Like any other natural product, the biomass of legal cannabis can be contaminated by several toxic agents such as heavy metals, organic solvents, microbes and pesticides, which significantly influence the safety of the end products.

Let’s just consider the toxicological effects. Since cannabis products are not only administered in edible forms but also smoked and inhaled, unlike most agricultural products, pesticide residue poses an unpredictable risk to consumers. One example is the potential role of myclobutanil in the vape crisis.

Unfortunately, federal and state laws are still conflicted on cannabis-related pesticides. Currently, only ten pesticide products have been registered specifically for hemp by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So, the question arises what has to be done with all pf the high-value, but also contaminated cannabis, keeping in mind that during the extraction processes, not only the phytocannabinoids get concentrated but the pesticides as well, reaching concentrations up to tens or hundreds of parts per million!

Currently, there are three different sets of rules in place in the regulatory areas of Oregon, California and Canada. These regulations detail which pesticides need to be monitored and remediated if a certain limit for each is reached. Because the most extensive and strict regulations are found in Canada, RotaChrom used its regulations as reference in their case study.

Centrifugal Partition Chromatographic (CPC) system

To illustrate that reality sometimes goes beyond our imagination, we evaluated the testing results of a THC distillate sample of one of our clients. This sample contained 9 (!) pesticides, of which six levels exceeded the corresponding action limits. The most frightening, however, regarding this sample, is that it contained a huge amount of carbofuran, a category I substance. It is better not to think of the potential toxicological hazard of this material…

The CPC-based purification of CBD is a well-known and straightforward methodology. As the elution profile on the CPC chromatogram of a distillate shows, major and minor cannabinoids can be easily separated from CBD. At RotaChrom, this method has been implemented at industrial-scale in a cost effective and high throughput fashion. In any case, the question arises: where are the pesticides on this chromatogram? To answer this, we set ourselves the goal to fully characterize the pesticide removing capability of our methodologies.

Our results on this topic received an award at the prestigious PREP Conference in 2019. The ease of pesticides removal depends on the desired Compound of Interest.

Here is a quick recap on key functionalities of the partition chromatography.

  • Separation occurs between two immiscible liquid phases.
  • The stationary phase is immobilized inside the rotor by a strong centrifugal force.
  • The mobile phase containing the sample to be purified is fed under pressure into the rotor and pumped through the stationary phase in the form of tiny droplets (percolation).
  • The chromatographic column in CPC is the rotor: cells interconnected in a series of ducts attached to a large rotor
  • Simple mechanism: difference in partition

Let’s get into the chemistry a bit:

The partition coefficient is the ratio of concentrations of a compound in a mixture of two immiscible solvents at equilibrium. This ratio is therefore a comparison of the solubilities of the solute in these two liquid phases.

The CPC chromatogram demonstrates the separation of Compounds of Interest based on their unique partition coefficients achieved through a centrifugal partition chromatography system.

CPC can be effectively used for pesticide removal. About 78% of the pesticides around CBD are very easy to remove, which you can see here:

In this illustration, pesticides are in ascending order of Kd from left to right. CBD, marked with blue, elutes in the middle of the chromatogram. The chart illustrates that most polar and most apolar pesticides were easily removed beside CBD. However, some compounds were in coelution with CBD (denoted as “problematic”), and some compounds showed irregular Kd-retention behavior (denoted as “outliers”).

If pesticides need to be removed as part of THC purification, then the pesticides that were problematic around CBD would be easier to remove and some of the easy ones would become problematic.

To simulate real-world production scenarios, an overloading study with CBD was performed, which you can see in the graph:

It is easy to see on the chromatogram that due to the increased concentration injected onto the rotor, the peak of CBD became fronting and the apparent retention shifted to the right. This means that pesticides with higher retention than CBD are more prone to coelution if extreme loading is applied.

To be able to eliminate problematic pesticides without changing the components of the solvent system, which is a typical industrial scenario, the so-called “sweet spot approach” was tested. The general rule of thumb for this approach is that the highest resolution of a given CPC system can be exploited if the Kd value of the target compounds fall in the range of 0.5-2.0. In our case, to get appropriate Kd values for problematic pesticides, the volume ratio of methanol and water was fine-tuned. Ascending mode was used instead of descending mode. For the polar subset of problematic pesticides, this simple modification resulted in an elution profile with significantly improved resolution, however, some coelution still remained.

In the case of apolar pesticides, the less polar solvent system with decreased water content in ascending mode provided satisfactory separation.

Moreover, if we focus on this subset in the three relevant regulatory areas, the outcome is even more favorable. For example, myclobutanil and bifenazate, dominant in all of the three regulatory regions, are fully removable in only one run of the CPC platform.

Based on these results, a generic strategy was created. The workflow starts with a reliable and precise pesticide contamination profile of the cannabis sample, then, if it does not appear to indicate problematic impurity, the material can be purified by the baseline method. However, if coeluting pesticides are present in the input sample, there are two options. First, adjusting the fraction collection of the critical pesticide can be eliminated, however the yield will be compromised in this case. Alternatively, by fine-tuning the solvent system, a second or even a third run of the CPC can solve the problem ultimately. Let me add here, that a third approach, i.e., switching to another solvent system to gain selectivity for problematic pesticides is also feasible in some cases.

In review, RotaChrom has conducted extensive research to analyze the list of pesticides according to the most stringent Canadian requirements. We have found that pesticides can be separated from CBD by utilizing our CPC platform. Most of these pesticides are relatively easy to remove, but RotaChrom has an efficient solution for the problematic pesticides. The methods used at RotaChrom can be easily extended to other input materials and target compounds (e.g., THC, CBG).

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.

 

Applications for Tissue Culture in Cannabis Growing: Part 1

By Aaron G. Biros
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Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer of C4 Laboratories, believes there are a number of opportunities for cannabis growers to scale their cultivation up with micropropagation. In her presentation at the CannaGrow conference recently, Dr. Jones discussed the applications and advantages of tissue culture techniques in cannabis growing.

Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer at C4 Labs

Dr. Jones’ work in large-scale plant production led her to the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) where she worked to propagate a particularly difficult plant to grow- a native orchid species- using tissue culture techniques. With that experience in tissue culture, hydroponics and controlled environments, she took a position at the Kennedy Space Center working for NASA where she developed technologies and protocols to grow crops for space missions. “I started with strawberry TC [tissue culture], because of the shelf life & weight compared with potted plants, plus you can’t really ‘water’ plants in space- at least not in the traditional way,” says Dr. Jones. “Strawberries pack a lot of antioxidants. Foods high in antioxidants, I argued, could boost internal protection of astronauts from high levels of cosmic radiation that they are exposed to in space.” That research led to a focus on cancer biology and a Ph.D. in molecular & cellular biology and plant sciences, culminating in her introduction to the cannabis industry and now with C4 Labs in Arizona.

Working with tissue culture since 2003, Dr. Jones is familiar with this technology that is fairly new to cannabis, but has been around for decades now and is widely used in the horticulture industry today. For example, Phytelligence is an agricultural biotechnology company using genetic analysis and tissue culture to help food crop growers increase speed to harvest, screen for diseases, store genetic material and secure intellectual property. “Big horticulture does this very well,” says Dr. Jones. “There are many companies generating millions of clones per year.” The Department of Plant Sciences Pomology Program at the Davis campus of the University of California uses tissue culture with the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) to eliminate viruses and pathogens, while breeding unique cultivars of strawberries.

A large tissue culture facility run in the Sacramento area that produces millions of nut and fruit trees clones a year.

First, let’s define some terms. Tissue culture is a propagation tool where the cultivator would grow tissue or cells outside of the plant itself, commonly referred to as micropropagation. “Micropropagation produces new plants via the cloning of plant tissue samples on a very small scale, and I mean very small,” says Dr. Jones. “While the tissue used in micropropagation is small, the scale of production can be huge.” Micropropagation allows a cultivator to grow a clone from just a leaf, bud, root segment or even just a few cells collected from a mother plant, according to Dr. Jones.

The science behind growing plants from just a few cells relies on a characteristic of plant cells called totipotency. “Totipotency refers to a cell’s ability to divide and differentiate, eventually regenerating a whole new organism,” says Dr. Jones. “Plant cells are unique in that fully differentiated, specialized cells can be induced to dedifferentiate, reverting back to a ‘stem cell’-like state, capable of developing into any cell type.”

Cannabis growers already utilize the properties of totipotency in cloning, according to Dr. Jones. “When cloning from a mother plant, stem cuttings are taken from the mother, dipped into rooting hormone and two to five days later healthy roots show up,” says Dr. Jones. “That stem tissue dedifferentiates and specializes into new root cells. In this case, we humans helped the process of totipotency and dedifferentiation along using a rooting hormone to ‘steer’ the type of growth needed.” Dr. Jones is helping cannabis growers use tissue culture as a new way to generate clones, instead of or in addition to using mother plants.

With cannabis micropropagation, the same principles still apply, just on a much smaller scale and with greater precision. “In this case, very small tissue samples (called explants) are sterilized and placed into specialized media vessels containing food, nutrients, and hormones,” says Dr. Jones. “Just like with cuttings, the hormones in the TC media induce specific types of growth over time, helping to steer explant growth to form all the organs necessary to regenerate a whole new plant.”

Having existed for decades, but still so new to cannabis, tissue culture is an effective propagation tool for advanced breeders or growers looking to scale up. In the next part of this series, we will discuss some of issues with mother plants and advantages of tissue culture to consider. In Part 2 we will delve into topics like sterility, genetic reboot, viral infection and pathogen protection.