NRGene plans to improve cannabis science faster by helping create new strains that deliver specific beneficial compounds—for medicinal, therapeutic and psychoactive benefits—while being more adaptive to industrial agricultural production.

With the 2018 Farm Bill removing industrial hemp (< 0.3 percent THC) from the Controlled Substances Act, along with many state governments legalizing cannabis growth and sale, the race among researchers and seed companies is on to rapidly scale their ability to improve varieties of hemp for all market segments.

The challenges to improve traits—whether the end cannabis product is from industrial hemp or psychoactive cannabis (marijuana)—are daunting. There is no long-term research or extensive mapped genomes in cannabis science like corn and soybeans.

The need for rapid development of new varieties requires speed-breeding protocols that shorten breeding time dramatically. NRGene has developed a novel approach to breeding that accurately maps desirable traits in a highly efficient manner. By developing unique genetic markers, the company significantly reduces the number of plants required for the breeding program–saving time and grow-space needed to develop new commercial varieties.

“Thanks to classic cannabis breeding and repeatedly crossing various varieties, there are some varieties (strains) in the market with high concentrations of THC, CBD and industrial hemp strains high in CBD and very low in THC,” says Gil Ronen, co-founder and president of NRGene, an Israel-based genomics company. “However, there are dozens of other commercially important traits that could vastly improve cannabis for growers and processors—from disease resistance and plant architecture to unique chemical contents. Those traits are hidden in the vast genomic diversity of cannabis, where probably 99% of it has not yet been revealed,” he says.

First Fully-phased Cannabis Genome

On the cutting-edge of unique advanced genome research—mapping more than 400 genomes in two years of all key crops—NRGene recently completed the first fully-phased cannabis genome. By using its DeNovoMAGIC technology to completely map cannabis founder lines for California-based Kayagene, its breeders now know full genetic makeup and exact values of their lines to improve future strains faster at lower costs. NRGene technology has successfully revealed double the number of gene (functional elements in the genome) compared to any previously mapped cannabis genome.

“In a fast-evolving market, we’re working to breed varieties with unique cannabidiol (CBD) profiles for the recreational and hemp markets, and for growers entering the hemp industry,” says Christopher Hohn, Kayagene director of R&D. “We felt it is important to work with the leader in the field, as we’re making leaps and bounds by using NRGene because their tools are far and above other companies in this space.”

Hohn sees NRGene advancing cannabis genomics and breeding in great ways over the next couple of years, due to unprecedented accuracy in genome mapping, marker discovery and complex trait mapping of new strains. Such services will enable development of tailor-made plant traits, which are crucial for industrial and medicinal applications.

Higher Speed, Lower Costs

Ronen describes NRGene’s team as a unique combination of experts in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, genetics, breeding and bioinformatics. This effort has developed proprietary tools for genome mapping at reduced time and cost while sharply increasing genome assembly accuracy. “We plan to improve cannabis science faster by helping create new strains that deliver specific beneficial compounds—for medicinal, therapeutic and psychoactive benefits—while being more adaptive to industrial agricultural production.”

This significant cost and time savings will help NRGene and partners win the race in this “green rush.” Overall hemp acreage grew from 25,713 in 2017 to 78,176 acres in 2018. These Vote Hemp Crop Report numbers reveal a booming cannabis science industry. As a total business, U.S. hemp sales hit $820 million in 2017, and Hemp Business Journal expects sales over $1 billion in 2019 and $2 billion by 2022.

“Our fully-phased genomes in cannabis breeding reveals the hidden secrets of diverse cannabis strains and enable us to efficiently implement discoveries for future treatments of multiple human medical conditions,” Ronen says.

NRGene plans to improve cannabis science faster by helping create new strains that deliver specific beneficial compounds—for medicinal, therapeutic and psychoactive benefits—while being more adaptive to industrial agricultural production.