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Mar 28, 2016 4:02 PM

New Strain Potential Opens With Ambitious Genome Project

How much do you trust what is written on marijuana-related labels? How can you know whether the manufacturer notes all the data correctly? Mowgli Holmes claims he uses marijuana genome analysis to tell you everything you want to know—just by looking at the plant's DNA.

While some people do not really care about the information on the labels of cannabis-related products in local marijuana dispensaries (as long as weed gives them a nice high effect), others very much interested in said texts being correct. It can make a significant difference as people's health and sometimes even lives may depend on the right THC/CBD percentage.

But even in significantly less dramatic cases, incorrect labels are often a nuisance. Today, the process of labeling marijuana-containing products is largely irregular and often results in inaccurate or incomplete information appearing on the labels. For instance, a wonderful Blueberry Cheesecake strain is, in fact, a sativa-dominant hybrid. But in some dispensaries, you may find this strain labeled simply as an indica or a sativa strain. It does not mean that they want to fool you, they simply want everything to be simple and clear, and such an “insignificant detail" as Blueberry Cheesecake not being a pure strain, but a hybrid looks unimportant for them.

With a solid genome database, marijuana users would be able to find the perfect match for their needs and desires among all the variety of strains on the market. Plus, it would be much clearer what exactly they are using.

An ambitious idea that popped-up on time

Chuck Palahniuk, one of the most popular modern American writers, in his documentary book “Fugitives and Refugees" shares his theory that everyone in America looking for a new life migrates west, every time closer to the Pacific Ocean. Once they get to the very edge, they try to find the cheapest town, and that is Portland, Oregon. That is why this place is full of unusual, and sometimes even weird, people and ideas. Because everyone there is either a fugitive or refugee.

No wonder that the ambitious project of sequencing the DNA of every strain of cannabis in the world (to other scientists, this idea seems quite unusual) came to a person from Portland.

Mowgli Holmes spent his childhood in a small city in Oregon's Willamette Valley, went to Vassar College, where he focused on philosophy and then decided that a certain time of relaxing would be just fine for him before he decides what exactly he want to do in his life. He headed back to Oregon and spent there five years playing drums in several rock bands.

Who knows, maybe if Holmes kept on practicing playing music he would become another John Bonham, but at some point Holmes went directly to New York in order to study microbiology at Columbia University. His key scientific interest was in studying viruses, and Holmes' ambition was to study HIV.

But after graduating, he came back to Oregon, and this is where his idea about marijuana genome came to him.

Research background

The year 2013 was full of discussions in Oregon. It was a year before the state became the fourth to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and all there were a lot of talk about the issue. This is how Mowgli Holmes found a new field of research: cannabis genomics.

Not only it became a popular topic to talk about, but also the whole new industry was exploding around the cannabis plant. And, suddenly, it became clear how little science knows about marijuana. And if we talk about science, it is not so often you have a topic to study where nobody is competing with you. Usually, all the little aspects of all the possible things are receiving someone's scientific attention; once you think that some side of the question is not clear enough yet, you immediately find out that there is someone who is already working on this.

Maybe one of the biggest hindrances for exploring the world of cannabis is the certain risk of losing the respect of colleagues. How can one be taken seriously as a scientist if they are busy with such a fribble topic? The cannabis legalization law in Colorado and Washington does not make any difference. In this way, science can be amazingly conservative.

Another block on the way to studying cannabis is created by the government. If you want to study marijuana legally, you can use only the plants grown by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Mississippi. Holmes says that this is the most crappy material for a research anyone can find, and for his particular study these plants are absolutely useless.

Plus, it is not so easy to find a place for this kind of studies. If we are talking about federally-funded universities, even if they are in the states that have legalized marijuana use already, they still need to get approval from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration. The researchers are also obligated to obtain permission if they want to have anything to do with marijuana. Of course, both scientists and universities are not too excited about filing papers and go through the red tape, so it can be a real problem to find a laboratory that would host this kind of a study.

Holmes has found a way how to avoid all these troubles: according to his research, he has nothing to do with marijuana plants, only with marijuana DNA. He managed to rent a laboratory in federally funded Oregon Health and Science University. This is a serious and ambitious project that involves ten full-time employees.

But it did not help against prejudice in the scientific world. If before people were just giggling and saying “You cannot be serious," now they just say “Tell me about the financials."

Marijuana family from all over the world

Holms gets his cannabis samples from every corner of our planet. His collection contains more than 2,000 specimens; most of them Holmes have already downloaded into the special software program that processes the data of all the cannabis DNA. The program combines DNA into clusters that look like a constellation of stars, where dots are strains and the lines represent the relationship between these strains.

Holmes collection has not only American species, but also includes a number of rare and valuable strain from Colombia, Uruguay, Mexico, India, Afghanistan, Namibia, Thailand, and South Africa. Holmes also managed to persuade the legendary breeders David Watson and Robert Clarke from Amsterdam to give some samples from their herbarium as well.

To get the whole picture of the cannabis strain family, Holmes needs as many different strains as it is possible. He even tries to get a 2,700-year-old cannabis strain from China.

Recently, Holmes got what he called a “jackpot" right here, in America. Ohio lawyer Don Wirtshafter appeared to have a massive collection of all kind of marijuana samples, including pills, powder, and some residues, that was stored at his house from the time before marijuana prohibition came along in 1937.

A project that can change the rules

Holmes laboratory, named Phylos Bioscience, has been working since 2014. According to the lab's director of research, Jessica Kristof, the most difficult thing to do in their study is to extract DNA from the samples. The thing is, they have different kinds of substances, and every single one of them requires a different protocol.

It is especially difficult with the ancient DNA as it is very fragmented. In some samples, there could be only one percent of marijuana, and they are diluted with various substances. Plus, the samples often are covered with E.coli and yeast that appear because of the poor storage conditions. The process goes slowly, but the researchers are not going to give up.

Once Phylos completes processing all the samples, they want to put all the data set to the Open Cannabis Project, so all the information would be in the public domain. This information will be used for the special program that will allow dispensaries and marijuana growers to label their product as “certified." This way the consumers will be able to know what exactly they are using and find the perfect match for their needs.

Instead of categorizing marijuana strains according to simplistic criteria (indica or sativa strain), Holmes' study will allow to be more precise in describing every single strain and will help consumers achieve a better understanding of what they may expect from a particular product.

The project may also help with some history questions as well. Cannabis plant can be found all over the world; by tracing its genetics, it will be possible to know how exactly cannabis spread to different countries and continents. So, it can give us some information about human history as well.