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A Conversation with the Founders of Veda Scientific: Part Two

By Aaron G. Biros
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This is the second piece in a two-part conversation with the founders of Veda Scientific, CEO Leo Welder and CSO Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD. To read part one, click here.

In part one, we chatted about their backgrounds, their approach to cannabis testing, their role in the greater industry and how they came into the cannabis industry.

In part two, we’re going down a few cannabis chemistry rabbit holes and realizing that what we don’t know is a lot more than what we do know. Join us as we delve into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis, chicken adobo and much more.

Aaron: Alright so you mentioned the GCxGC/MS and your more advanced terpene analysis. How do you envision that instrument and that data helping your customers and/or the industry? 

Leo: Some of the things that we envision will help is a better understanding of what compounds and what ratios will lead to desirable outcomes, things like better effects, aroma and flavor. By better understanding these things it’ll help the industry create better products.

I have a personal connection to this. My wife has some insomnia and she’s always had to take various forms of OTC pharmaceuticals to help with sleep. She tried using a 1:1 vape pen and it was a miracle worker for her for several months. The local dispensary had a sale on it, and she bought some extra. Unfortunately, even though she used it the same way as before, she got very serious anxiety, which obviously didn’t help her sleep. Every time she used the vapes from this same batch, she felt the same extreme anxiety. Sadly, she now had a lot of this product that she couldn’t use because it kept her awake rather than helping her sleep, so she went back to trying other OTC solutions. That’s a problem for both consumers and the industry at large. If people find something that works and provides a desired effect, they need to be able to rely on that consistency every time they purchase the product, leading to similar outcomes and not exaggerating the problem. That’s why I think consistency is so important. We’re taking two steps forward and one back when we have inconsistent products. How do we really grow and expand the availability of cannabis if we lose trust from our consumer base? What a lab can do and what we can do is provide data to cultivators and manufacturers to create that consistency and ultimately allow the market to expand into other demographics that are currently wary and less tolerant of that variance.

Vials of cannabis samples being prepped for collaborative research with the CESC

On a similar note, we have been having a lot of discussions with the CESC [Clinical Endocannabinoid System Consortium] down in San Diego. They are an advanced cannabis research group that we have been working with for over a year. We’ve started looking at the idea of varietals. To be more specific, because I’m not a wine connoisseur, varietals are the pinot noirs, the cabernets and sauvignon blancs of the industry. In the cannabis industry, consumers have indica and sativa, though we still argue over what that concept really means, if anything. But for the sake of argument, let’s say we have this dichotomy to use as a foundational decision tool for consumers- call it the red and white wine of the cannabis industry. How inaccessible would wine be if we just had red or white? Imagine if you went to a dinner party, really liked the wine you were drinking, and the host could only tell you that it was a red wine. You can’t go to a wine store and expect to find something similar to that wine if the only information you have is “red.” At a minimum, you need a category. So that’s what varietals are, the categories. The data that we can produce could help people in the industry who identify and establish the varietals based on their expertise as connoisseurs and product experts to find what those differences are chemically. Similarly, we’re also looking at appellation designations in California. So, we want to help provide tools for farmers to identify unique characteristics in their flower that would give them ability to claim and prove appellation designation.

Aldwin: The GCxGC/MS allows us to find more things besides the typical terpene profile with 20 or 40 terpenes. It allows us to go beyond those terpenes. The issue sometimes is that with a typical one-dimensional GC method, sure you could probably separate and find more terpenes, but the one dimension is not enough to separate everything that coelutes. And it’s not just terpenes. Some terpenes coelute with one another and that’s why people can see this inconsistency. Especially if you use a detector like an FID, we can see the compound limonene on the chromatogram, but there’s another terpene in there that is unknown that coelutes with limonene. So, this instrument is helping us get past the coeluting issue and solve it so that we know what peaks represent what terpenes.

The other bonus with our GCxGC/MS is that the coeluting compounds that were masked behind other terpenes are now revealed. There is a second dimension in the chromatogram where we can now detect some compounds in cannabis that would be hiding behind these large peaks if it were just a one-dimensional GC. Besides terpenes, we’ve found esters, alkanes, fatty acids, ketones, alcohols and aldehydes, as well as thiols. The terpenes are so plentiful in cannabis that these other compounds present at lower levels cannot be seen with just one-dimensional GC. There are just so many compounds in cannabis that the ones in small amounts are often masked. My analogy to highlight the importance of these minor compounds is like a dish; I am from the Philippines and I like chicken adobo. My father does it differently from my mom and someone else will do it differently in a different region. The base of the sauce is vinegar and soy sauce, but some people will do it differently and maybe add some bay leaf, garlic, pepper, or a touch of another spice. It’s still chicken adobo, but it tastes differently. Just like in cannabis, where yes, you have the same amount of THC in two different plants, but it’s still giving you a different experience. Some people say it’s because of terpenes, which is true in a lot of cases, but there are a lot of other volatile compounds that would explain better why certain dishes taste different.

2-D chromatogram showing four peaks separated by the GCxGC. With a traditional 1-D chromatogram, these peaks would coelute and not separate.

Leo: There’s been some recent developments too here that show it’s very significant. It’s like the difference between bland and spicy. And it could be the thiol. We identified a thiol in cannabis at the same time as other scientists reported an article that just came out on this subject.

Aldwin: Thiols are sulfur containing compounds that produce very powerful odors, giving cannabis the skunky smell. Skunks also produce thiols. It is very potent; you only need a little bit. It turns out that yes, that paper described thiols and we also saw them in our GCxGC/MS. These are the kinds of things that the GCxGC can show you. Those very tiny amounts of compounds that can have a very powerful impact. That’s one that we know for sure is important because it’s not just us that’s finding out that GCxGC can detect this.

Not everything is about THC or the high amount of the compounds in the flower. This paper and our concurrent findings indicated that the skunkier smelling strains contained very small amounts of thiols and you can recognize their presence quite readily. It’s not a terpene, but it’s producing a distinct flavor and a powerful smell.

Aaron: Okay, so why is this useful? Why is it so important?

Leo: I would say two things in particular that we know of that are issues currently, both related to scents. We mentioned this earlier. We do know that farmers with breeding programs are trying to target particularly popular or attractive scent profiles, whether it be a gas or fruity aroma. Right now, when they get the flower tested and review the terpene profile, it isn’t enough information to help them identify what makes them chemically distinct. We hear time and again that farmers will say their terpene profile is not helpful in identifying specific scents and characteristics. They are looking for a fingerprint. They want to be able to identify a group of plants that have a similar smell and they want a fingerprint of that plant to test for. Otherwise, you have to sniff every plant and smell the ones that are most characteristic of what they’re targeting. For larger operations, walking through and smelling thousands of plants isn’t feasible.

Once we can identify that fingerprint, and we know which compounds in which ratios are creating the targeted aroma, we can run tests to help them find the best plants for breeding purposes. It’s about reproducibility and scalability.

Another value is helping people who are trying to categorize oils and strains into particular odor categories, similar to the varietals concept we’ve been talking about. Currently, we know that when manufacturers send multiple samples of oils with the same or similar scent to be tested, the results are coming back with significantly different terpene profiles. There is not enough data for them to chemically categorize products. It’s not that their categories are wrong, it’s just that the data is not available to help them find those boundaries.

Those are two issues that we know from conversations with customers that this particular piece of equipment can address.

Aldwin: Let’s start from what we find, meaning if you are using the GCxGC/MS, we are finding more terpenes that nobody else would be looking at. We have data that shows, for example, that certain standards are accounting for 60% or so of total terpene content. So a large percent is accounted for, but there is still quite a bit missing. For some strains there are terpenes that are not in common reference standards. Being able to know that and identify the reason why we have different terpenes in here unaccounted for is big. There are other things there beyond the standard terpenes.

Dr. Anterola working with the GCxGC/MS

What excites me sometimes is that I see some terpenes that are known to have some properties, either medical or antibacterial, etc. If you find that terpene looking beyond the list, you’ll find terpenes that are found in things like hardwood or perfumes, things that we don’t necessarily associate with the common cannabis terpenes. If you’re just looking for the limited number of terpenes, you are missing some things that you might discover or some things that might help explain results.

Leo: It’s also absolutely necessary for the medical side of things. Because of the federal limitations, cannabis hasn’t been researched nearly enough. We’re missing a lot of data on all of the active compounds in cannabis. We are finally starting to move into an era where that will soon be addressed. In order for certain medical studies to be successful, we need to have data showing what compounds are in what plants.

Drs. John Abrams and Jean Talleyrand of the CESC launched the Dosing Project in 2016. They have been studying the impact of cannabis flower for indications such as pain mitigation and sleep improvement, and now more recently mood, and appetite modulation. They categorize the THC & CBD content as well as flower aroma into 3 cannabinoid and 3 odor profiles. They are able to acquire quite a bit of data about how odor correlates with the outcomes. Because they were initially limited in terms of underlying natural product content data, they contacted us when they found out we acquired this equipment in 2020, and have stated that they are certain the data we will now be producing will take their research to the next level of understanding.

Aldwin: For quality control you are looking at specific things that would reflect properties in cannabis. There should be a 1:1 correspondence between properties observed and what we are measuring. The current assumption is that the terpenes we are looking at will tell us everything about how people would like it, with regards to flavor and smell preference. But we know for a fact that the limited terpenes most labs are measuring do not encapsulate everything. So, it is important for QC purposes to know for this particular strain or product, which everyone liked, what is it in there that makes everybody like it? If you just look at the typical terpene profile, you’ll find something close, but not exact. The GCxGC/MS shows us that maybe there’s something else that gives it a preferred property or a particular smell that we can explain and track. In one batch of flower, the consumer experiences it a certain way, and for another batch people experience it another way. We’d like to be able to understand what those differences are batch to batch so we can replicate the experience and figure out what’s in it that people like. That’s what I mean by consistency and quality control; the more you can measure, the more you can see.

Aldwin: Speaking to authenticity as well, in a breeding example, some growers will have this strain that they grew, or at least this is what they claim it to be, but what are the components that make those strains unique? The more analytes you can detect, the more you can authenticate the plant. Is this really OG Kush? Is this the same OG Kush that I’ve had before? Using the GCxGC/MS and comparing analytes, we can find authenticity in strains by finding all of the metabolites and analytes and comparing two strains. Of course, there is also adulteration- Some people will claim they have one strain that smells like blueberries, but we find a compound in it that comes from outside of cannabis, such as added terpenes. Proving that your cannabis is actually pure cannabis or proving that something has added terpenes is possible because we can see things in there that don’t come from cannabis. The GCxGC/MS can be used as a tool for proving authenticity or proving adulteration as well.  If you want to trademark a particular strain, we can help with claiming intellectual property. For example, if you want to trademark, register or patent a new product, it will be good to have more data. More data allows for better description of your product and the ability to prove that it is yours.

Leo: One thing that I think is a very interesting use case is proving the appellations. It is our understanding that California rolled out a procedure for growers to claim an appellation, but with strict rules around it. Within those rules, they need to prove uniqueness of growing products in specific regions. The GCxGC/MS can help in proving uniqueness by growing two different strains in two different regions, mapping out the differences and seeing what makes a region’s cannabis unique. It’s valuable for growers in California, Oregon, Colorado to be able to prove how unique their products are. To prove the differences between cannabis grown in Northern California versus plants grown along the Central Coast. And of course, for people across the world to be able to really tell a story and prove what makes their cannabis different and special. To be able to authenticate and understand, we need to have more comprehensive data about properties in those strains. It could be terpenes, it could be esters or thiols. That’s what we’re excited about.

Aaron: From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead for the cannabis industry?

Aldwin: Getting ready for federal legalization is both a challenge and opportunity. A challenge because when it is federally legal, there will be more regulations and more regulators. It is also a challenge because there will be more businesses, more competition, that might get into the industry. It is opening up to other players, much bigger players. Big tobacco, mega labs and massive diagnostic testing companies might participate, which will be a challenge for us.

But it’s also an opportunity for us to serve more customers, to be more established at the federal level, to move to interstate commerce. The opportunity is to be ready here and now while other people are not here yet.

Another challenge and opportunity is education. Educating consumers and non-consumers. We have to realize and accept that cannabis is not for everybody, but everyone is a stakeholder, because they are our neighbors, parents or part of the medical establishment. It would be a disservice not to educate the non-consumers.

The medical establishment, they don’t have to be consumers but they need to know about cannabis. They don’t know as much as they should about cannabis and they need to know more, like how it could affect their patients for better or for worse, so they know how to help their patients better. There could be drug interactions that could affect the potency of other drugs. They need to know these things. Educating them about cannabis is a challenge. It’s also an opportunity for us to now come in and say that cannabis is here to stay and be consumed by more and more people, so we better know how to deal with it from a medical perspective.“This bucking bronco of a growth style will throw a lot of people off. We need to figure out what we can grab on to and ride out these waves.”

Law enforcement needs to be educated too. What THC level in the blood indicates impairment? It is still a challenge because we’re not there yet, we don’t have that answer quite yet. And it’s an opportunity to help educate and to find more answers for these stakeholders, so we can have regulations that make sense.

Leo: To Aldwin’s point, the biggest opportunity comes along with federal legalization as well as expanding the customer base beyond the traditional market. Since adult use was legalized in CA, we haven’t yet seen the significant expansion of the consumer population. We’re primarily seeing a legal serving of the market that already existed before legalization.

The reality is cannabis can be used in different ways than what we think of. We know it has medical benefits and we know it is enjoyed recreationally by people looking for high THC content and the highest high. But there is also this middle ground, much like the difference between drinking moonshine and having a glass of wine at dinner. The wine at dinner industry is much bigger than the mason jar moonshine industry. That’s really where the opportunity is. What’s the appeal to the broader market? That will be a big challenge, but it’s inevitable. It comes from everything we’ve talked about today, consistency in products, educating people about cannabis, normalizing it to a certain degree, varietals and appellations.

As an entrepreneur, I’m looking at this from a business perspective. Everyone talks about the hockey stick growth chart, but it is a very wavy hockey stick. I expect to see very significant growth in the industry for a while, but it will have a lot of peaks and valleys. It’ll essentially be whiplash. We are seeing this in California right now, with sky high prices in flower last year down to bottom of the barrel prices this year. We have to all figure out how to hang on. This bucking bronco of a growth style will throw a lot of people off. We need to figure out what we can grab on to and ride out these waves. The good ones will be fun and the bad ones will be painful and we know they are coming again and again and again. That’s the biggest challenge. People say ‘expect tomorrow to look a lot like today,’ but you really can’t expect tomorrow to look anything like today in the cannabis industry. Tomorrow will be totally different from today. We need to figure out, within all this chaos, what can we hang on to and keep riding the upward trajectory without getting thrown off the bronco.

A Conversation with the Founders of Veda Scientific: Part One

By Aaron G. Biros
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Leo Welder, CEO of Veda Scientific, founded the business with Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD in July of 2019. A serial entrepreneur with experience in a variety of markets, he came to the industry with an intrigue for cannabis testing and analysis. After teaming up with Dr. Anterola, co-founder and chief science officer at Veda Scientific, they came together with the purpose of unlocking possibilities in cannabis. From the beginning, they set out with a heavy scientific interest in furthering the industry from a perspective of innovation and research.

Through discussing their clients’ needs and understanding their complex problems, the two realized they wanted to start a lab that goes well beyond the normal regulatory compliance testing. Innovation in cannabis looks like a lot of things: new formulations for infused products, better designs for vaping technology or new blends of genetics creating unique strains, to name a few. For the folks at Veda Scientific, innovation is about rigorous and concentrated research and development testing.

With the help of some very sophisticated analytical chemistry instruments, their team is working on better understanding how volatile compounds play a part in the chemometrics of cannabis. From varietals and appellations to skunky smells, their research in the chemistry of cannabis is astounding – and they’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

In this two-part series, we discuss their approach to cannabis testing, their role in the greater industry as a whole and we go down a few cannabis chemistry rabbit holes and find out that what we don’t know is a lot more than what we do know. In part one, we get into their backgrounds, how they came into the cannabis industry and how they are carving out their niche. Stay tuned for part two next week where we delve deep into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis and chicken adobo.

Aaron G. Biros: Tell me about how you and your team came to launch Veda, how you entered the cannabis space and what Veda’s approach is to the role of testing labs in the broader cannabis industry. 

Leo Welder, CEO of Veda Scientific

Leo Welder: I’m an entrepreneur. This is my third significant venture in the last fifteen years or so. So, I was intrigued by cannabis legalization broadly, because it is such a unique time in our history. I was always interested in participating in the industry in some way, but I didn’t see where would be a good fit for me. I used to meet monthly with a group of friends and fellow entrepreneurs for dinner and discussions and one member started working on the software side of the industry. He mentioned the testing element of cannabis in one of our meetings. I latched on to that and was intrigued by the concept of testing cannabis. I began to research it and found the role that testing plays in the cannabis industry is really significant. I found out that regulators rely pretty heavily on labs to make sure that products are safe, labels are accurate and that consumers have some protections. So, I thought that this is a space that I thought I could really find a calling in.

So, from that point I knew I needed to find a subject matter expert, because I am not one. I have business skills and experience in some technical fields but I am not a cannabis testing expert by any means. So, with that I started to look at a few different markets that I thought may have opportunity for a new lab, and I came across Aldwin’s business; he had a cannabis testing lab in Illinois at that time. I reached out to him, talked to him about my vision for the space and his thoughts and his vision and we really started to come together. From there, we researched various markets and ultimately chose to approach Santa Barbara County as our first foray together into the cannabis testing market.

Aldwin M. Anterola: As Leo mentioned, he was looking for a subject matter expert and I am very much interested in plant biochemistry. Which means I like to study how plants make these compounds that are very useful to us. For my PhD [in plant physiology], I was studying how cell cultures of loblolly pine produce lignin. Our lab was interested in how pine trees produce lignin, which is what makes up wood. Wood comes from phenolic compounds. You’ve probably heard of antioxidants and flavonoids – those are phenolic compounds. After my PhD, I wanted to do something different so I decided to work with terpenes.

I picked a very important terpene in our field, an anti-cancer compound called Taxol, produced from the bark of the yew tree. You have to cut trees to harvest it. We have ways of synthesizing it now. But at that time, we were trying to figure out how the tree produces that terpene. Of course, I’m interested in any compound that plants make. My interest in terpenes led me to cannabinoids which turn out to be terpenophenolics, thus combining the two interests in my professional field.

Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer at Veda Scientific,

So that’s the scientific and intellectual side of why I became interested in cannabis, but practically speaking I got into cannabis because of a consulting offer. A company was applying for a cultivation license, wanted to have a laboratory component of their business in their application, and hired me to write that part of their application. I was very familiar with HPLC, and had a GC/MS in the lab. I also have a background in microbiology and molecular biology so I can cover every test required at that time, and I knew I could research the other analytical techniques if necessary.

So, they did not get the license, but I figured I’d take what I wrote, once I received permission, and set up an independent laboratory together. But it’s hard to run a lab and be a professor at the same time. Also, the busines side of running a lab is something that I am not an expert in. Fortunately, Leo found me. Before that, I really got excited about this new industry. The concept of cannabis being now accessible to more people is so interesting to me because of how new everything is. I wanted to be involved in an industry like this and help in making it safe while satisfying my curiosity in this new field of research. As a scientist, those are the things that excite us: the things we didn’t have access to, we can now do. It opens up a whole new room that we want to unlock. It was my intellectual curiosity that really drove me. This opened up new research avenues for me as well as other ventures if you will. How can I be more involved? I thought to myself.

SIU boasts an impressive cannabis program, thanks largely to Dr. Anterola’s work there.

Back in 2014, I introduced cannabis research to our university [Southern Illinois University] and set up an industrial hemp program, which was DEA-licensed I gathered faculty that would be interested in studying hemp and cannabis and we now have a whole cannabis science center at the university. I teach a course in cannabis biology and because I also teach medical botany to undergraduate students, I was able to introduce [premed] students to the endocannabinoid system. Anyway, I can go on and on.

Outside of that I became involved with the AOAC and ASTM, and became a qualified assessor for ISO 17025:2017. I have been a member of the American Chemical Society since 2000 but there were no cannabis related activities there yet until relatively recently. But when they had the new cannabis chemistry subdivision, I am happy to participate in there as well . There are many avenues that I took to begin dabbling with cannabis, be it research, nonprofits, teaching, testing and more. Cannabis has basically infiltrated all areas of what I do as an academic.

Leo: I read his resume and I was like this is the guy! So back to your question, what’s Veda’s role as a testing lab in this space? What are we trying to build? We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we wanted to be in this space. We came to understand that labs are not the tip of the spear for the market; that would be the growers, the retailers and the processors. We are a support, a service. We see ourselves as a humble, but competent guide. We provide the data for the tip of the spear, the people pushing the industry forward with support, data and the services to make sure they have the tools they need to build these great companies and great products with good cultivation practices and more, leading everyone to the next level of the cannabis industry. Our job is to support innovation, to provide quality compliance testing, to of course ensure safety, while also providing great R&D to these innovative companies.

Aldwin: I’d like to add a bit to that thought. Okay so that’s who we are, but what are we not? Because as Leo said I had a testing lab before we met [Advanced Herbal Analytics]. From there, I approach it as safety testing, making sure that before it gets to the end consumer, we are sort of like gate keepers keeping consumers safe. That’s one side to it, but we are not the people who are trying to make sure that none of the products get to the market. For some, that’s how we’re treated as.

People often look at testing labs like the police. We are not the people trying to limit products to market. Our approach is not to find faults. There is another way of being a testing lab that is less about finding faults in products and more about finding uniqueness. What makes your product different? With this new approach, we are much more focused on helping the best products make it to the shelves.

Aaron: Given that all state licensed labs have to provide the same tests as the other labs in that state, how does Veda differentiate itself?

Leo: Location was the first thing. We picked Santa Barbara County intentionally. We knew that some of the biggest operators, some of the most forward-thinking innovators were setting up shop here. Looking down the road, not just this year or next year but very long term, we wanted to start building a great, sustainable company. We wanted to build a brand that those kinds of companies would be receptive to. Building better and greater products. There’s one other lab in the county and that’s it. Whereas there are clusters of labs in other parts of the state. Part of the draw to Santa Barbara for us was that it is such a small, tight-knit community. We have worked very hard to build relationships in our community and to understand their challenges, helping them however we can.

Location and relationships. Getting to know the challenges that different size customers face, be it our greenhouse customers versus outdoor customers, or large-scale operations versus smaller manufacturing operations, the challenges are all different. Some people care about turnaround times, some more about R&D. If we understand our client’s problems, then we can provide better service. We see ourselves as problem solvers. We lean heavily on our technical team members like Aldwin, who not only have tremendous amounts of experience and education, but also great networks to utilize when a customer needs help, even when it falls outside of our local expertise.

The GCxGC/MS instrument, used for Veda’s advanced R&D testing

Last but certainly not least is the advanced R&D testing that we do. When we first started, we started talking to farmers and manufacturers trying to understand their challenges. What data were they not getting? How would a testing lab better serve them? So, we started investing strategically in certain instruments that would allow us to better serve them. We’ll get into this later as well, but we invested in a GCxGC/MS, which allows us to get more visibility into things beyond the typical panels, like more terpenes and other volatile compounds including thiols and esters. We did that because we knew there is value in that. The data our customers were getting prior just wasn’t enough to put together really great breeding programs or to manufacture really consistent products, you know, to move toward that next level of innovation in the industry.

Aldwin: Leo mentioned advanced R&D and it’s basically the same approach that I mentioned before. It’s not just telling you what you can and cannot do. It’s about asking them what do you want to do and what do you want from a lab? If we have a problem, let’s see if we can solve it. That’s how the GCxGC/MS came into play because we knew there was a need to test for many terpenes and other volatile compounds. The common complaint we received was why two terpene profiles differ so much from each other, even from the same genetics.

This is something that would actually give the customer, the cultivator or the manufacturer: data about their product that they can actually use. For consistency, for better marketing and other reasons. We are trying to help them answer the questions of ‘how can I make my product better?’

You know, for example, clients would tell us they want something that has a specific taste or smells a certain way. Nobody is telling them what makes the flavor or smell. There is a need there that we can fill. We are trying to provide data that they, the customers, need so that they can improve their breeding programs or their formulations. Data they can use, not just data they need in order to comply with regulations. They would ask us what we can do. We listen to our customers and we try and help as best we can. We don’t know every answer. We are discovering there is a lot more to terpenes than what you can find on a traditional one dimensional gas chromatogram. Some of the terpene data that our clients had previously is not really actionable data, which is where the GCxGC/MS is helping us.


In part two, we delve deep into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis and chicken adobo. Click here to read part two. 

Leaders in Infused Products Manufacturing: Part 1

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.

This is the first article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this first piece, we talk with Keith Cich, co-founder of Sunderstorm, Inc. and the brand Kanha Gummies. Keith and his business partner, Cameron Clarke, started Kanha Gummies in 2015 after long careers outside of the cannabis industry. In 2015, they went all in and started the brand, which grew to be a major player and driving force in the California market.

Next week, we’ll sit down with Mike Hennesy, director of innovation at Wana Brands. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: Keith, nice to meet you. Thank you for taking the time today. Tell me about how you got Sunderstorm off the ground and how you got involved in the company?

Keith Cich: Absolutely. So, my business partner, Cameron Clarke, is a lifelong friend. We met as undergraduates at Stanford University. I went on to work on Wall Street and did commercial real estate. Cameron has been a serial entrepreneur, from a much more technical side working in software. He was actually one of the first people to bring the Açai Berry to market and put it on the shelves of Whole Foods. So, he’s kind of the science and operations guy and I’m the finance and business guy.  It’s been very synergistic.

Keith Cich, co-founder of Sunderstorm, Inc.

By 2015 we had both traveled extensively and were big advocates of plant medicine and cannabis as another form of plant medicine. We also have a 15-year track record of going to Burning Man together. Really, explorations in consciousness and plant medicine were what tied us together. When cannabis came up as a business opportunity, we just kind of looked at each other and said, you know, we have a lot of business experience to bring to the table. We have a love of the plant and an appreciation for how it will impact society. So, we kind of went all in in 2015 under proposition D, and set up operations in Los Angeles at that time.

Aaron: How did you decide to get into infused products from the list of choices?

Keith: Yeah, we initially set up extraction, but we felt that cultivation and extraction would ultimately be commodities.  However, if you could develop popular brands you could carve out valuable shelf space and have longevity.

We acquired a small gummy company in February 2016. In the beginning of it all – I call it “Cannabis 1.0.” At that time, a lot of the packaging was really oriented around men in their 20s focused on “high consumption.” The packaging was a lot of black and skull and crossbones, and it didn’t really represent who Cameron and I were as people. You know, we were a little bit older and well-traveled. And we just felt like when adult use would come in that brands would take a different pathway. So, we hired a branding person to come in and help with packaging.

We really focused on a product that would appeal to females because it was clear they were going to be 50% of the market – and packaging that would really appeal to older people, which we thought would come on board once the stigma of cannabis was reduced. And so, we really set up Kanha gummies, at that time in early 2016, to be this adult use product that would appeal to a wide spectrum, both medical users as well as adult users in the time that would come in the not too distant future.

Aaron: Yeah, that’s interesting. You talked about how you thought about differentiating in the early days getting off the ground. How do you think about differentiating today?

Keith: The two things that really set Sunderstorm apart from the crowd is automation and innovation. We were the first gummy company to invest hundreds of thousands in European confectionery equipment, which allowed us to scale our business, but more importantly, produce an identical product every time. The reason we hear people come back to Kanha gummies is that they have the same replicable experience every time, which is really the key to CPG companies. So, it’s really stringent automation that allowed us to develop precise dosing. In fact, in 2019, we won the award from CannaSafe, which is the largest lab in California, for the most accurately formulated edible. We dialed in manufacturing and that’s what set us apart in the early years.

My partner is really geared towards science and implementing new delivery systems for cannabinoid products. We were the first company to come out with a nano edible about a year ago in 2019 and we are still the leader in offering consumers nano-molecular delivery systems. What does that mean? One of the common problems with edibles is that it takes 45 minutes to an hour for it to kick in. We all know friends who take a cookie and double up on the cookie and end up having too big of an experience. Rapid onset curbs that risk. Our nano gummy kicks in about 15 to 20 minutes, and it’s got just this really nice journey to it. We’ve separated the audience between the people that have our classic gummies, which takes longer to kick in, maybe a little bit stronger and the nano technology, which has a really fast onset, and really kind of a discrete journey. We stay ahead of the competition today, because of the nanotechnology that we’ve implemented in gummies.

As I always say, it’s not about how much vitamin C you take – it’s more about how much vitamin C gets in your blood stream. And it’s the same with cannabis, right? It’s how much THC and CBD or other molecules get in your system. So it’s about really having the highest bioavailability and the best performing products. And that’s what our customers have come to believe about Sunderstorm.

Aaron: You’ve talked about a couple new products from Kanha. At a high level, can you talk about your process for ideating and creating a new product?

Keith: Sure. I could use an example of a product that we’ve just kind of relaunched. It’s called the Tranquility gummy and it’s targeted for sleep. What we’ve discovered is there’s a whole host of medical reasons why people take cannabis – as well as the adults who take cannabis for entertainment – but sleep is a major issue for Americans of all ages. It’s surprising. It impacts 20 year olds and it impacts 60 year olds.

Part of the process of coming up with a product is trying to figure out what’s the need in the marketplace. So in this case, we really looked and said, hey, let’s target sleep and see if we can experiment and come up with a product. Our first round of Tranquility had a mix of CBD and THC in it because both of those are valuable for sleep. CBD is a chill-pill that kind of makes you calm so you can go to sleep. THC is often something that helps people stay asleep.

“We go through many iterations of a product before it actually hits the marketplace.”In that product, we also added 5-HTP, which is a serotonin booster, which once again, people take when they have anxiety or stress. So it’s kind of a stress reliever, and it helps you be calm, which again, I think a lot of the problems for people who have an issue with going to sleep, it’s having so much on their mind that they can’t stop the monkey mind to actually enter into sleep to begin with.

We also added just a small amount, one milligram, of melatonin. We know that Melatonin is a sleep aid, but you don’t want to take so much melatonin that your body stops producing melatonin because you’re taking the supplements. So at the end of the day, you want to just encourage and coax your body into healing and not overkill it with a pharmaceutical. Right?

So that was our first generation and we worked with that but my partner looks through a lot of research that’s occurring on different cannabinoid particles, and it became clear that CBN, which is kind of a new cannabinoid that’s hitting the press, actually had really strong properties for sedation and keeping people asleep. So, we added the largest dose of CBN in any gummy, and then re-launched that product a month or two ago. And we’re getting incredible feedback from shops that they’re selling out. It’s awesome, because people are actually taking the gummy and having the effect of falling asleep and staying asleep.

It’s the combination of the different factors. No one factor is so overwhelming like a pharmaceutical drug. But it’s the combination of the different factors together that make for a great product. And we fortunately have dozens of people in our company who are happy to do R&D for our new products. We also have some people outside the company that are consultants and experts as well. We go through many iterations of a product before it actually hits the marketplace. And that’s the second thing: it’s a lot of rigorous R&D testing of products before we launch it for the end consumer.

Aaron: Yeah, so if we can touch on that, can you tell me about your experience with your most recent product launch? Whether it’s the NANO5 or the Tranquility gummies? How did you think about preparing the market for the launch? Preparing your team for the launch? And then how did it go?

Keith: I’ll talk about our sublingual line called NANO5. Again, it’s a nano product where every molecule of CBD or THC is wrapped in a molecule of fatty lipids, so that when you spray it on your tongue, it tricks your body into absorbing it directly into the bloodstream and doesn’t actually go through the digestive tract and the liver. The bioavailability of these sublinguals is high and 70 to 80% of the cannabinoids actually get into your bloodstream.

We’ve done blood sampling tests versus your standard tincture. Your standard tincture is just MCT oil and cannabis, it’s pretty crude, kind of caveman-ish, quite frankly, when compared to the delivery of pharmaceuticals are today. NANO5 is a much more advanced delivery system.“We’re here to really try to educate people the best that we can.”

Now we have the product… right? This is a sophisticated product that’s challenging for bud tenders to explain when consumers come in with their medical needs. We had to create a lot of written brochures about how the product works, what the dosages are and that sort of stuff. Then our sales people go in and actually train the shops. They’ll pull bud tenders out and do training sessions and talk about NANO5, what makes it different from other tinctures, what medical conditions is it good for, etc. It’s kind of old fashioned, in-store training.

Then we finally have implemented a new piece, which is digital bud tender and consumer training. We are leveraging a platform for bud tender training, we talk with the shop, talk about the product and if the shop manager agrees we send a link out to all the bud tenders who take a quiz. The bud tenders get educated on an online platform, take a quiz, and then when they pass the quiz, they get a licensed sample of the product to try themselves so they have firsthand experience.

What we find in many shops is that the consumer is still not that educated about cannabis, particularly for medical uses, and particularly what I call the “new consumer” that hadn’t used cannabis in their lives, because it had such a high stigma to it and now with the reduction of the stigma it means a 40 or 50 year old woman might go into a store to find something to help with pain, or help with anxiety. Now, the bud tender can use the training that they’ve learned on NANO5, and understand that this could be a good product for them, and then talk about it intelligently and give some materials to the consumer before they walk away.

It can be intimidating for consumers to go into a shop, you know, it’s a new experience. It’s like going to the doctor’s office, you don’t always hear what they say, because you’re kind of nervous. So giving them the written materials, and even a test to follow up on online really allows for a form of education that is in tune with the user needing to learn at their own speed and really to just take away what’s important for them.

Aaron: Did I hear you correctly? The user – the end consumer – can also do a quiz?

Keith: Yes. Sunderstorm is about science and education. There’s a lot of assumptions in the marketplace that may not be correct. So, we’re here to really try to educate people the best that we can. And we really believe the rest of the world acts in a digital manner for education. In some ways, cannabis is a little bit behind the times because it’s difficult to advertise on Facebook and traditional venues. So we have one hand tied behind our back when we’re dealing with the digital world. But we at Sunderstorm are big believers that digital will be the way that cannabis consumers learn about brands, learn about products and learn about cannabinoids, and we want to be at the forefront of that education process.

Aaron: OK, we talked about some challenges. One of the challenges I hear a lot is about sourcing ingredients for infused products. How do you go about sourcing ingredients in your infused product lines?

Keith: Our primary ingredient that we source is distillate. And starting back in prop 215 days, we have a zero parts per billion policy on pesticides. What we discovered is before lab testing and licensure came in place is that 80 to 90% of the oil out there actually had pesticide levels that were way beyond safe. It really took licensing and the implementation of lab testing to change that regime. We now buy distillate from third party extractors and we have a handful of really big, really solid players onboard who provide that oil to us. The key is that if there’s any detectable trace of pesticides, we send it back and they replace it with a not-detect batch. So for us, that’s really the key to the whole supply chain: starting with oil that’s clean and really good quality.“Delivering the product in a compliant manner has been one of our logistical challenges, but one that I think we’ve done quite well at day in and day out.”

Fortunately, we’re one of the bigger brands in the industry so we have a little clout to make sure that the people that give us our oil are giving us their top shelf, and not their bottom shelf. We then have also made it a point to use only natural flavoring and natural coloring in our gummies. Believe it or not some of the red coloring actually is derived from beets and beet juice. We use spirulina as a source for our blue green colors. All of the gummies that we produce, not only have no pesticides, but they have no artificial flavors and no artificial coloring, which is of course standard in mainstream gummies that you buy at CVS or the local drugstore. So we really feel like we want to put out a healthy product and Cameron and I always look at each other, like, ‘we wouldn’t sell a product that we wouldn’t put into our own bodies.” And we’re very health conscious, you know, buying organic produce and not wanting pesticides to be inside us.

Aaron: Can you give me an example of a challenge you run into frequently, and this could be a business challenge, a marketing challenge, financials… something that you run into frequently?

Keith: Yeah, so we not only manufacture our products in California, but we also do self-distribution to over 500 retailers, meaning in store dispensaries and delivery services throughout California. With these 500 customers, we have two distribution points, one in LA and one in the Bay Area where I’m located. It’s an amazing challenge logistically. Not only are we running a manufacturing operation that requires precision – and it’s highly regulated – but we run a distribution company that’s highly regulated. For us the challenge is how do we efficiently deliver product to the Oregon border when we’re manufacturing in LA? We’ve had to spend a lot of time developing protocols for logistics and distribution to be able to basically meet demand throughout the state. And we’ve been growing like crazy. We add 10 new shops probably every week.

Delivering the product in a compliant manner has been one of our logistical challenges, but one that I think we’ve done quite well at day in and day out.

Aaron: What kind of trends are you looking at in the industry? And what keeps you excited?

Keith: I think COVID-19 has touched every aspect of our lives and it is impacting how we consume cannabis. Because it’s a respiratory disease, I think people have been wanting to shy away from smoking flower or vaping to keep their lungs healthy as a precaution in case they get it. So edibles have been kind of a natural choice for that. As well as the simple act of sharing something; sharing a joint raises a lot of safety risks, especially during the pandemic. It’s a lot easier to share a single gummy out of a bag safely.

Secondly, what I’ve noticed is that parents have their kids at home and yet they still want to consume cannabis as they did before. Edibles have been big because of discretion. So mom or dad can pop a gummy and have a spritzer before dinner and enjoy the night and my theory is happy parents make happy kids. So discretion has been critical.

Then I think there’s a whole round of new entrants that I mentioned before. These are people that maybe smoked weed in college or high school and haven’t touched it for 20 years and now that the stigma has been reduced, they’re coming back to the marketplace and wanting to explore. They may try a vape product, but very few of them want to smoke, as the country is generally pretty anti-smoking.

I think edibles and gummies have been a way for new cannabis consumers, particularly those who are older, to come and enjoy the positive effects, the medical effects and the social lubricant that cannabis offers, while being safe and discreet at the same time. I think COVID has definitely changed the way that that people think about consuming cannabis.

Aaron: Okay, awesome! Lastly, what would you like to learn more about? What are you interested in?

Keith: I have a degree in philosophy and religion. I’m a big fan of the evolution of consciousness. I think that is the container of the story through which we view human civilization and I honestly think we’re at a turning point for how humans in Western society view plant medicine.

I think cannabis is just the first to come along and be legalized. They’ve been doing phase II and III clinical trials on psilocybin and end of life anxiety. People, particularly war veterans, are using ecstasy or MDMA for depression.

What we’re discovering is that what we think we know about the mind is only the tip of the iceberg on how the mind works. I’m interested in exploring how these plant medicines impact individually with our psyche. Secondly, what happens to society when we reach a tipping point and a majority or at least some significant portion are taking these plants and medicines on a regular basis? It opens us up to a whole new perspective on ourselves, on society and on the universe that we live in. So I read a lot in those fields. And that’s what really excites me.

Aaron: Great. So that’s the end of the interview. Thank you for that.

IR Spectrum of 2,4-Dichlorophenol in different physical states
From The Lab

Gas Chromatography/Infrared Spectroscopy: A Tool For the Analysis of Organic Compounds in Cannabis

By John F. Schneider
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IR Spectrum of 2,4-Dichlorophenol in different physical states

Editor’s Note: The author will be teaching a 1/2 day short course on this topic at PITTCON in Philadelphia in March 2019.


The combination of gas chromatography and infrared spectroscopy (GC/IR) is a powerful tool for the characterization of compounds in complex mixtures. (1-5) Gas chromatography with mass spectroscopy detection (GC/MS) is a similar technique, but GC/MS is a destructive technique that tears apart the sample molecules during the ionization process and then these fragments are used to characterize the molecule. In GC/IR the molecules are not destroyed but the IR light produced by molecular vibrations are used to characterize the molecule. IR spectrum yields information about the whole molecule which allows the characterization of specific isomers and functional groups. GC/IR is complementary to GC/MS and the combination results in a powerful tool for the analytical chemist.

A good example of the utility of GC/IR vs GC/MS is the characterization of stereo isomers. Stereo isomers are mirror images such as a left hand and a right hand. In nature, stereo isomers are very important as one isomers will be more active then its mirror image. Stereo isomers are critical to medicinal application of cannabis and also a factor in the flavor components of cannabis.

GC/MS is good at identifying basic structure, where GC/IR can identify subtle differences in structure. GC/MS could identify a hand, GC/IR could tell you if it is a left hand or right hand. GC/MS can identify a general class of compounds, GC/IR can identify the specific isomer present.

Why GC/IR?

Gas chromatography interfaced with infrared detection (GC/IR), combines the separation ability of GC and the structural information from IR spectroscopy. GC/IR gives the analyst the ability to obtain information complementary to GC/MS. GC/IR gives the analyst the power to perform functional group detection and differentiate between similar molecular isomers that is difficult with GC/MS. Isomer specificity can be very important in flavor and medical applications.

 IR Spectrum of 2,4-Dichlorophenol in different physical states

IR Spectrum of 2,4-Dichlorophenol in different physical states

Gas chromatography with mass spectrometry detection (GC/MS) is the state-of-the-art method for the identification of unknown compounds. GC/MS, however, is not infallible and many compounds are difficult to identify with 100 % certainty. The problem with GC/MS is that it is a destructive method that tears apart a molecule. In infrared spectrometry (IR), molecular identification is based upon the IR absorptions of the whole molecule. This technique allows differentiation among isomers and yields information about functional groups and the position of such groups in a molecule. GC/IR complements the information obtained by GC/MS.

Interfaces

Initial attempts to couple GC with IR were made using high capacity GC columns and stopped flow techniques. As GC columns and IR technology advanced, the GC/IR method became more applicable. The advent of fused silica capillary GC columns and the availability of Fourier transform infrared spectrometry made GC/IR available commercially in several forms. GC/IR using a flow cell to capture the IR spectrum in real time is known as the “Light Pipe”. This is the most common form of GC/IR and the easiest to use. GC/IR can also be done by capturing or “trapping” the analytes of interest eluting from a GC and then measuring the IR spectrum. This can be done by cryogenically trapping the analyte in the solid phase. A third possibility is to trap the analyte in a matrix of inert material causing “Matrix Isolation” of the analyte followed by measuring the IR spectrum.

Infrared Spectroscopy

The physical state of the sample has a large effect upon the IR spectrum produced. Molecular interactions (especially hydrogen bonding) broadens absorption peaks. Solid and liquid samples produce IR spectra with broadened peaks that loses much of the potential information obtained in the spectra. Surrounding the sample molecule with gas molecules or in an inert matrix greatly sharpens the peaks in the spectrum, revealing more of the information and producing a “cleaner” spectrum. These spectra lend themselves better to computer searches of spectral libraries similar to the computer searching done in mass spectroscopy. IR spectral computer searching requires the standard spectra in the library be of the same physical state as the sample. So, a spectrum taken in a gaseous state should be searched against a library of spectra of standards in the gaseous state.

IR of various phases:

  • Liquid Phase – Molecular interactions broaden absorption peaks.
  • Solid Phase – Molecular interactions broaden absorption peaks.
  • Gas Phase – Lack of molecular interactions sharpen absorption peaks.
  • Matrix Isolation – Lack of molecular interactions sharpen absorption peaks.

IR Chromatograms

GC/IR yields chromatograms of infrared absorbance over time. These can be total infrared absorbance which is similar to the total ion chromatogram (TIC) in GC/MS or the infrared absorbance over a narrow band or bands analogous to selected ion chromatogram. This is a very powerful ability, because it gives the user the ability to focus on selected functional groups in a mixture of compounds.

Conclusion

Gas chromatography with infrared detection is a powerful tool for the elucidation of the structure of organic compounds in a mixture. It is complementary to GC/MS and is used to identify specific isomers and congeners of organic compounds. This method is greatly needed in the Cannabis industry to monitor the compounds that determine the flavor and the medicinal value of its products.


References

  1. GC–MS and GC–IR Analyses of the Methoxy-1-n-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)-Indoles: Regioisomeric Designer Cannabinoids, Amber Thaxton-Weissenfluh, Tarek S. Belal, Jack DeRuiter, Forrest Smith, Younis Abiedalla, Logan Neel, Karim M. Abdel-Hay, and C. Randall Clark, Journal of Chromatographic Science, 56: 779-788, 2018
  2. Simultaneous Orthogonal Drug Detection Using Fully Integrated Gas Chromatography with Fourier Transform Infrared Detection and Mass Spectrometric Detection , Adam Lanzarotta, Travis Falconer, Heather McCauley, Lisa Lorenz, Douglas Albright, John Crowe, and JaCinta Batson, Applied Spectroscopy Vol. 71, 5, pp. 1050-1059, 2017
  3. High Resolution Gas Chromatography/Matrix Isolation Infrared Spectrometry, Gerald T. Reedy, Deon G. Ettinger, John F. Schneider, and Sid Bourne, Analytical Chemistry, 57: 1602-1609, 1985
  4. GC/Matrix Isolation/FTIR Applications: Analysis of PCBs, John F. Schneider, Gerald T. Reedy, and Deon G. Ettinger, Journal of Chromatographic Science, 23: 49-53, 1985
  5. A Comparison of GC/IR Interfaces: The Light Pipe Vs. Matrix Isolation, John F. Schneider, Jack C. Demirgian, and Joseph C. Stickler, Journal of Chromatographic Science, 24: 330- 335, 1986
  6. Gas Chromatography/Infrared Spectroscopy, Jean ‐ Luc Le Qu é r é , Encyclopedia of Analytical Chemistry, John Wiley & Sons, 2006
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand
Soapbox

Cannabis and the Environment: Navigating the Interplay Between Genetics and Transcriptomics

By Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand
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Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand

It is that time of year where the holidays afford us an opportunity for rest, recuperation and introspection. Becoming a new father to a healthy baby girl and having the privilege to make a living as a scientist, fills me with an immeasurable sense of appreciation and indebtedness. I’ve also been extremely fortunate this year to spend significant time with world-renowned cannabis experts, such as Christian West, Adam Jacques and Elton Prince, whom have shared with me a tremendous wealth of their knowledge about cannabis cultivation and the development of unique cannabis genetics. Neither of these gentlemen have formal scientific training in plant genetics; however, through decades of experimentation, observation and implementation, they’ve very elegantly used alchemy and the principles of Mendelian genetics to push the boundaries of cannabis genetics, ultimately modulating the expression of specific cannabinoids and terpenes. Hearing of their successes (and failures) has triggered significant wonderment and curiosity with respect to what can be done beyond the genetic level to keep pushing the equilibrium in this new frontier of medicine.

Lighting conditions can greatly impact the expression of terpenes (and cannabinoids) in cannabis.Of course genetics are the foundation for the production of premium cannabis. Without the proper genetic code, one cannot expect the cannabis plant to express the target constituents of interest. However, what happens when you have an elite genetic code, the holy grail of cannabis nucleotides if you will, and yet your plant does not produce the therapeutic compounds that you want and/or that are reflective of that elite genetic code? This ‘loss in translation’ can be explained by transcriptomics, and more specifically, epigenetics. In order for the genetic code (DNA) to be expressed as a gene product (RNA), it must be transcribed, a process that is modulated by epigenetic processes like DNA methylation and histone modification. In other words, the methylation of the genetic code can dictate whether or not a particular segment of DNA is transcribed into RNA, and ultimately expressed in the plant. To put this into context, if the DNA code for the enzyme THCA synthase is epigenetically silenced, then no THCA synthase is produced, your cannabis cannot convert CBGA into THCA, and now you have hemp that is devoid of THC.So what is the best lighting technology to enhance the expression of terpenes? 

With all of that being said, how do we ensure that our plants thrive under favorable epigenetic conditions? The answer is the environment; and the expression of terpenes is an ideal indicator of favorable environmental conditions. While amazing anti-inflammatories, anti-oxidants and metabolic regulators for humans, terpenes are also extremely powerful anti-microbial agents that act as a robust a line of defense for the plant against bacteria and pests. So, if the threat of microbes can induce the expression of terpenes, then what about other environmental factors? I am of the opinion that the combination of increased exposure to bacteria and natural sunlight enhances the expression of terpenes in outdoor-grown cannabis compared to indoor-grown cannabis. This is strictly my opinion based off of my own qualitative observations, but the point being is that lighting conditions can greatly impact the expression of terpenes (and cannabinoids) in cannabis.

A plant in flowering under an LED fixture

So what is the best lighting technology to enhance the expression of terpenes? Do I use full spectrum lighting or specific frequencies? The answer to these questions is that we don’t fully know at this point. Thanks to the McCree curve we have a fundamental understanding of the various frequencies within the visible light spectrum (400-700nm) that are beneficial to plants, also known as Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR). However, little-to-no research has been conducted to determine the impacts that the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum (also categorized as ‘light’) may have on plants. As such, we do not know with 100% certainty what frequencies should be applied, and at what times in the growth cycle, to completely optimize terpene concentrations. This is not to disparage the lighting professionals out there that have significant expertise in this field; however, I’m calling for the execution of peer-reviewed experiments that would transcend the boundaries of company white papers and anecdotal claims. In my opinion, this lack of environmental data provides a real opportunity for the cannabis industry to initiate the required collaborations between cannabis geneticists, technology companies and environmental scientists. This is one field of research that I wish to pursue with tenacity and I also welcome other interested parties to join me in this data quest. Together we can better understand the environmental factors, such as lighting, that are acting as the molecular light switches at the interface of genetics and transcriptomics in cannabis.

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.