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Khyrrah-Cymone Shepard
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Challenges in Cannabis Genome Sequencing for Genetic Tracking and Traceability

By Khyrrah-Cymone Shepard
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Khyrrah-Cymone Shepard

Genome sequencing has made remarkable strides since the initiation of “The Human Genome Project” in 1990. Still, there are many challenges that must be overcome before this methodology can reach its fullest potential and be useful in serving as a method of Cannabis sativa genetics verification and tracking throughout the cannabis supply chain. Several major milestones that must be realized include end-to-end haploid type (single, unpaired set of chromosomes instead of complete paired set or “diploid”), long read, resolved genome sequences at a reasonable cost within a reasonable timeframe and with confidence in accuracy (Mostovoy et al.). These genomes are typically generated as shorter reads that are then scaffolded (Fig 1.) or matched to reference genomes in order to build a longer continuous read. While shorter sequencing reads indeed lower the cost barrier for producing more genomic data, it has created another issue as a result of this short-read technology.

Figure 1: Four sets of sequencing data (long-read WGS, Hi-C, optical mapping, and short-read WGS) were produced to generate the goat reference genome. A tiered scaffolding approach using optical mapping data followed by Hi-C proximity-guided assembly produced the highest-quality genome assembly. (Bickhart et al.)

There are two main issues with the more affordable short read sequencing methodology, the first being that sequential variants are typically not detected, especially if they involve a ton of repeats/inverted repeats, due to the limitation of the current referenced Cannabis genomes and the mapping process of the short-read sequences. This is especially unfortunate because larger variants can have up to a 13% variance within a diploid multichromosomal genome, such as Cannabis sativa, and this variance is thought to largely contribute to disease in various species, or maybe terpene profile in Cannabis sativa. Not being able to detect these variances with more affordable sequencing methodologies is particularly problematic and reference genomes produced with short read sequences are typically highly fragmented. The second limitation is the inherent errors, gaps and other ambiguities associated with taking tons of short read sequences and combining them all, like a jigsaw puzzle, in order to draft the larger genomic picture. While there is software with algorithms to assist in deciphering raw sequences, there is still much more work to be done on this challenge, considering that cannabis genome sequencing is new genomics territory. Unfortunately, as researchers seek higher and higher levels of data quality, shortcomings of this type of sequencing technology begin to become apparent. This sort of sequencing methodology relies heavily on reference sequences. This isn’t much of an issue with microbial genomes, which tend to be rather short and typically have one chromosome, however, when seeking to analyze much longer genomes with multiple diploid chromosomes and tons of mono and dinucleotide repeats, problems arise (English et al.).

Figure 2: Blockchain Digital Stamping Certificate which publicly documents the date and time of the completion of this work. (Mckernan – Crypto Funded Public Genomics)

The other category of sequencing is long read sequencing. Long read sequencing is as it sounds, the deciphering of much longer DNA strands. Of course, the technology is limited by the quality of the DNA captured, therefore, special high molecular weight DNA extraction protocols must be deployed in order to obtain the proper DNA quality (Fig. 3). Once this initial limitation is overcome there is the stark cost of long read sequencing technology. PacBio without a doubt makes one of the highest quality long read sequence generating instruments that has ever graced the field of biotechnology, but due to the steep price tag of the machine, progress in this field has been stifled simply because it just isn’t affordable and the read depth for mammalian and plant genomes is currently almost completely prohibitive until read lengths double in length for this instrumentation. In order to produce what is considered to be a “validated genome” both short read and long read sequencing methodologies are combined. Long read sequencing data is used to produce the reference contigs because they are much easier to assemble, then short read sequencing is scaffolded against the reference contigs as a sort of “consensus validation” of the long read contigs.

Figure 3: Depiction of various DNA high molecular weight DNA quality captured during cannabis genome submission project. (Mckernan – Crypto Funded Public Genomics)

Despite the shortcoming of utilizing short read sequencing technology for analysis of the cannabis genome, it is still useful especially when combined with other longer read sequencing technologies or optical mapping technologies. Kevin McKernan, chief scientific officer of Medicinal Genomics, has been working feverishly to bridge the information gap between the cannabis genome and other widely studied plant genomes. As a scientist that worked on the Human Genome Project in 2001, McKernan has a demonstrated history of brilliance in the field of genomics. This paved the way for him to coordinate the first crypto funded and blockchain notarized sequencing project (DASH DAO funded) (Fig. 2), which was completed in 60 days, and surprisingly showed that the cannabis genome is over 1 billion bases long which is 30% larger than any cannabis genome submitted prior to his work. By reaching the standard of 500kb N50 set forth by the Human Genome Project, Kevin McKernan was able to see new aspects of the cannabis genome that were not visible due to the fragmented genomic data previously generated. Information such as a possible linkage of THCA synthase and CBDA synthase genes is crucial when seeking to use the cannabis genome for verification and tracking purposes. This is because special linkages can be considered a type of “genetic marker” that may be used to differentiate cannabis cultivars and lineages. There are many types of genetic markers, including SNP (single nucleotide polymorphisms), VNTR (variable number tandem repeats) and even patterns of gene expression. Funding and recording of cannabis genomics must be further developed in order for potential markers to be identified and validated via larger scale genome-wide association studies.

These technologies, when combined, often reduce the number of scaffolds while increasing the percent of resolved genome by filling in gaps within the drafted genome. Nanopore sequencing is an especially interesting and innovative sequencing technology that is useful in many ways. One of the most powerful uses of this technology is its ability to upgrade the quality of draft and pushed genomes by resolving poorly organized genomes and genomic structure for a fraction of the time and cost of other long read sequencing platforms (Jian et al.), making it an excellent candidate for solving cost and time constraints. Nanopore’s portability and convenience makes it a real-time solution to solving genetics-based problems and questions. A notable use of this technology is recorded during an epidemiological outbreak in Africa, its proof of concept in pathogen detection in space, and its ability to detect base modifications during sequencing process. Even still there are more uses to this exciting technology and it has the potential to elevate cannabis genomics and the field of genomics entirely, while remaining portable and expeditious. A shortcoming of the Nanopore sequencing platform is its low sequencing coverage, which makes this platform inefficient for applications like haplotype phasing and single nucleotide variant detection due to the number of variants to be detected being smaller than the published variant-detection error rates of algorithms using MinION data. Single nucleotide variants can be considered to be genetic markers, especially markers for disease, so this is what inhibits Nanopore from resolving our cannabis genome sequencing problems, as of today.

There are genetic markers to discover, molecular biology protocols to optimize, and industry wide potential for exciting collaborationMany algorithmic problems seem to occur due to input data quality. Typical input data quality suffers as the reads get longer and the sequencing depth gets shorter, resulting in not enough data being generated by the sequencing to provide confidence in the genome assembly. To mitigate this, scientists may decide to fractionate a genome, sequence it, or they may clone a difficult to sequence region with highly repetitive regions in order to produce reads with greater depth and thus resolve the region. They can then perform single molecule sequencing to resolve genome structure then determine and confirm the place of the cloned region. Thus, it seems that the best solution to the limitation of algorithms is to be aware of sequencing platform limitations and compensate for these limitations by using more than one sequencing platform to obtain enough pertinent data to confidently produce authentic, “validated” genome assemblies (Huddleston et al.). With input data being critical in producing accurate sequencing data, standardization of DNA isolation protocols, extraction reagents and any enzymes utilized may be deemed necessary.

To conclude, the field of cannabis genomics is teeming with opportunities. There are genetic markers to discover, molecular biology protocols to optimize, and industry wide potential for exciting collaboration. More states will need to take into account the lack of federal government research grant availability and begin to think of creative ways to get cannabis science funds to continue the development of this industry. Specifically speaking, developing a feasible method for genetic tracking of cannabis plants will require improvements within the availability of sequencing technology, improvements in deploying the resources to these projects in order for them to be completed expeditiously, and standardization/validation of methods and SOPs used in order to increase confidence in the accuracy of the data generated.

A special thank you to all of my cannabis industry mentors that have molded and elevated my understanding of current needs and applied technologies within the cannabis industry, without you there would be no career within this industry for me. You are immensely appreciated.


Citations

Bickhart, D. M., Rosen, B. D., Koren, S., Sayre, B. L., Hastie, A. R., Chan, S., . . . Smith, T. P. (2017). Single-molecule sequencing and chromatin conformation capture enable de novo reference assembly of the domestic goat genome. Nature Genetics,49(4), 643-650. doi:10.1038/ng.3802

English, A. C., Salerno, W. J., Hampton, O. A., Gonzaga-Jauregui, C., Ambreth, S., Ritter, D. I., . . . Gibbs, R. A. (2015). Assessing structural variation in a personal genome—towards a human reference diploid genome. BMC Genomics,16(1). doi:10.1186/s12864-015-1479-3

Huddleston, J., Ranade, S., Malig, M., Antonacci, F., Chaisson, M., Hon, L., . . . Eichler, E. E. (2014). Reconstructing complex regions of genomes using long-read sequencing technology. Genome Research,24(4), 688-696. doi:10.1101/gr.168450.113

Jain, M., Olsen, H. E., Paten, B., & Akeson, M. (2016). The Oxford Nanopore MinION: Delivery of nanopore sequencing to the genomics community. Genome Biology,17(1). doi:10.1186/s13059-016-1103-0

Mostovoy, Y., Levy-Sakin, M., Lam, J., Lam, E. T., Hastie, A. R., Marks, P., . . . Kwok, P. (2016). A hybrid approach for de novo human genome sequence assembly and phasing. Nature Methods,13(7), 587-590. doi:10.1038/nmeth.3865

The First Map of the Cannabis Genome

By Aaron G. Biros
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Sunrise Genetics, Inc., the parent company for Hempgene and Marigene, announced last week they have successfully mapped the cannabis genome. The genome map was presented at the 26th Annual Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, CA during the panel “Cannabis Genomics: Advances and Applications.”

According to CJ Schwartz, chief executive officer of Sunrise Genetics, the full genome map will allow breeders to develop strains using DNA sequence information to complement phenotyping. “In this way a breeding program can be guided by the breeder versus blindly as it is for just pheno-hunting,” says Schwartz. “At the DNA level, we can identify what version of a set of genes a plant contains, and make predictions as to the phenotype, without ever growing the plant. As we make more and more gene markers, we have more genes to track, and breeding becomes more rapid, efficient and precise.” Schwartz says this is essential for breeding stable, repeatable plants. “A commercial strain will be grown in different environments, with solid genetics, the phenotype will mostly stay true, a term we call Genetic Penetrance.”

Ancestry-painted chromosomes for marijuana Image: Chris Grassa / Sunrise Genetics

Determining a plant’s DNA can be extremely valuable and completing the map of the genome now makes this more precise. It can serve as a point of proof, according to Schwartz, providing evidence of lineage in a breeding project and confirming the uniqueness and identity of a strain. The genome map can also allow breeders to select specific genes to develop custom strains. And in addition to all that, it provides legal protection. “Knowing your plants DNA code is the first step to being able take action so no one else can protect it,” says Schwartz. “Well documented evidence in the development of a customized strains is essential to maintaining control of your plant and keeping those you distrust (big pharma) away, many of which have minimal interest in the whole plant anyhow.”

CJ Schwartz, chief executive officer of Sunrise Genetics

Schwartz says this project took them roughly 18 months to wrap up. “One of the biggest problems was just finding the right plants to grow,” says Schwartz. “In addition we used some emerging technologies and those had some challenges of their own.” According to Schwartz, a key aspect in all this was finding the right collaborators. They ended up working with CBDRx and the plant biology department at the University of Minnesota, where a DEA-licensed lab has been researching cannabis since 2002. “George Weiblen’s group at UM has been working on Cannabis for over a decade,” says Schwartz. “During that time they did repeated selfing to make highly inbred marijuana and hemp lines. The lines were instrumental in deterring the physical order of the genes.”

Ancestry-painted chromosomes for hemp Image: Chris Grassa / Sunrise Genetics

After finishing up some experiments, they expect to get the genome map published on public domain in less than a year, opening up their research to the general public and allowing breeders and growers to use their data. “This will be a very significant publication,” says Schwartz. “The genome assembly allows for the assimilation of all the currently incompatible Cannabis genome sequence datasets from academia and private companies,” says Schwartz. “Joining datasets from 1000s of strains, and from every continent, will generate an essential public resource for cannabis researchers and aficionados alike.” With a tool like this, we can discover the genes that help produce desirable traits. “This project is a major accomplishment for cannabis, bringing it on par with other important crops, providing a scientific tool to unravel the secrets of this incredibly versatile plant,” says Schwartz.

Sunrise Genetics is assisting cannabis businesses in evaluating strains and developing breeding programs, working with a number of customers currently to develop strains for many different specific traits. “We have the expertise to help select parental strains and guide the selection process at each generation using genotype and phenotype information,” says Schwartz. “Essentially we are bringing all the tools any modern plant breeder would use for improving strawberries to cannabis.”

Sunrise Genetics Partners With RPC, Begins Genetic Testing in Canada

By Aaron G. Biros
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Sunrise Genetics, Inc., the parent company of Marigene and Hempgene, announced their partnership with New Brunswick Research & Productivity Council (RPC) this week, according to a press release. The company has been working in the United States for a few years now doing genomic sequencing and genetic research with headquarters based in Fort Collins, CO. This new partnership, compliant with Health Canada sample submission requirements, allows Canadian growers to submit plants for DNA extraction and genomic sequencing.

Sunrise Genetics researches different cannabis cultivars in the areas of target improvement of desired traits, accelerated breeding and expanding the knowledge base of cannabis genetics. One area they have been working on is genetic plant identification, which uses the plant’s DNA and modern genomics to create authentic, reproducible, commercial-ready strains.

Matt Gibbs, president of Sunrise Genetics, says he is very excited to get working on cannabis DNA testing in Canada. “RPC has a long track record of leadership in analytical services, especially as it relates to DNA and forensic work, giving Canadian growers their first real option to submit their plant samples for DNA extraction through proper legal channels,” says Gibbs. “The option to pursue genomic research on cannabis is now at Canadian cultivator’s fingertips.”

Canada’s massive new cannabis industry, which now has legal recreational and medical use, sales and cultivation, previously has not had many options for genetic testing. Using their genetic testing capabilities, they hope this partnership will better help Canadian cultivators easily apply genomic testing for improved plant development. “I’m looking forward to working with more Canadian cultivators and breeders; the opportunity to apply genomics to plant improvement is a win-win for customers seeking transparency about their Cannabis product and producers seeking customer retention through ‘best-in-class’ cannabis and protectable plant varieties,” says Gibbs. The partnership also ensures samples will follow the required submission process for analytical testing, but adding the service option of genetic testing so growers can find out more about their plants beyond the regular gamut of tests.

RPC is a New Brunswick provincial research organization (PRO), a research and technology organization (RTO) that offers R&D testing and technical services. With 130 scientists, engineers and technologists, RPC offers a wide variety of testing services, including air quality, analytical chemistry of cannabis, material testing and a large variety of pilot facilities for manufacturing research and development.

They have over 100 accreditations and certifications including an ISO 17025 scope from the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) and is ISO 9001:2008 certified. This genetic testing service for cannabis plants is the latest development in their repertoire of services. “This service builds on RPC’s established genetic strengths and complements the services we are currently offering the cannabis industry,” says Eric Cook, chief executive officer of RPC.

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.

Researching Cannabis Genetics: A Q&A with CJ Schwartz, Ph.D.

By Aaron G. Biros
3 Comments

Studying cannabis genetics is a convoluted issue. Strain classification, medicinal effects and plant breeding are particular areas in the science of cannabis that still require heavy research. Marigene, a company researching cannabis genetics, is currently working with universities and research institutes to help map the cannabis genome and catalog genetic variation.

cjschwartzmarigene
CJ Schwartz, Ph.D.

According to CJ Schwartz, Ph.D., chief executive officer and founder of Marigene, their mission is to “to classify, certify, and improve cannabis.” After studying genetics and cellular biology at the University of Minnesota, Schwartz received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. His research in the past decade has focused on genetic variations that control flowering time, discovering the expression of a gene called Flowering Locus T leads to differential flowering time of plants and is dependent on their native locations. We sat down with Schwartz to learn more about his research and collaborative efforts.


Cannabis Industry Journal: Why are you researching mapping the cannabis genome?

CJ Schwartz, Ph.D: We seek to identify the genetic differences among cannabis strains and the genes responsible for these differences. Genetic differences are what cause different strains to have different effects. DNA allows reproducibility, consistency, and transparency for your cannabis strains.

The more information we gather about cannabis genetics, the more tools we have available to create tailored strains. Cannabis is a targeted compound. It interacts with a very specific system in the human body, similar to hormones, such as insulin. Understanding the cannabis genome will help bring legitimacy and integrity to cannabis products, and allow us to better understand how chemicals from cannabis interact with the human brain. Genetic identification can provide a method of certification to more comprehensively describe plant material.

Schwartz doing sample preparation on the lab bench.
Schwartz doing sample preparation on the lab bench.

CIJ: How did you get involved in cannabis research?

Schwartz: My interest in cannabis guided my research career. Cannabis may not be a cure-all, but it has significant and measurable medicinal effects for many patients.

To allow true development of cannabis products, we need more science! Our genetic analysis is required for normalization and acceptance of cannabis products, but also essential for future breeding efforts to develop better and more useful plants.

Our sister company, Hempgene, is applying all of the same technology and techniques for hemp research. One focus of Hempgene is to manipulate flowering time in select hemp cultivars so that they mature at the appropriate time in different environments.

CIJ: What do you hope to accomplish with your research?

Schwartz: We can develop or stabilize a plant that produces a very specific chemical profile for a specific condition, such as seizures, nausea or pain. By breeding plants tailored to a patient’s specific ailment, a patient can receive exactly the medicine that they need and minimize negative side effects.

The current term describing the interaction of cannabis compounds is called the entourage effect. Interactions among compounds can be additive or synergistic. The entourage effect describes synergistic effects, where small amounts of compound A (e.g. Myrcene) vastly increase the effects of compound B (e.g. THC). Instead of flooding one’s body with an excessive amount of chemicals to get a non-specific effect, cannabis plants can be bred to produce a very specific effect.

labmarigene
A view of some of the work stations inside the laboratory at Marigene.

Currently our goal is to catalog the natural genetic variation of cannabis, and to identify DNA changes that affect a trait of interest. Once superior variants of a gene are identified, those variants can be combined, by marker-assisted breeding, to produce new combinations of genes. How different cannabis chemicals interact to produce a desired effect, and how different human genetics influence the efficacy of those chemicals should be the ultimate goal of medical marijuana research.

We are working closely with academic institutions and chemical testing labs to gather data for establishing correlations between specific cannabis strains and desirable chemical profiles. Our closest collaborator, Dr. Nolan Kane at UC-Boulder, is working to complete the Cannabis genomic sequence and generate the first high- resolution cannabis genetic map.

We are currently accepting samples and we produce a report in roughly two to three months. For one sequencing run, we identify 125 million pieces of DNA that are 100 base pairs long. We get so much information so there is a considerable time commitment.