The cannabis industry today is encountering problems that breeding efforts can prevent. For example, cannabis is highly impacted by the length of the day and needs different growing environments for different phases of its life cycle. It requires a long-day environment for plant development and a short-day environment for flowering and cannabinoid development. In practice, plants are constantly moved from one environment to another by growers. The large investment required to maintain plants and the right environmental conditions reduces the profits for a cannabis breeding company.
Controlling the sex of the plant is another daily struggle for cannabis growers. Both male and female organisms can be expressed on the same plant (dioecious plant) but only female plants produce cannabinoids, the active ingredients with medicinal and recreational value and terpenoids with aromatic oils that give cannabis its distinctive smell. A female plant can suddenly change its sex, develop pollen, fertilize flowers in the growing area and render the plants unusable. Because it is not yet known how to control the sex of the plant, growers manually separate male plants from females and remove them from the growing area.
Multiplication of cannabis plants has been traditionally done via vegetative propagation, not with seeds. A grower would observe early generations of plant populations expressing higher levels of genetic variation and select an excelled plant. This process has proved to be problematic because cuttings do not propagate true to form. After a few generations, the chemical profile of the cut plants could be totally different than the mother plant. Production from these products could not be approved for medicinal use.
As it stands today, each cannabis seed is different because the parent lines are heterozygotes and unstable. To overcome these challenges, cannabis breeders using breeding tools such as DNA markers are working to gain genetic control over cannabinoids plant profile and heterosis’ effect. This would allow transition from cuttings to hybrids seeds.
Although breeding efforts takes time and resources, in the long run it is worth the investment. If breeding is done widely and in parallel by many companies around the world, better cannabis products could be developed in shorter time with less effort and fewer resources. Breeders could thus recover their investment.
Thank you to Dr. Moshe Bar, founder and managing director at Biotagate, an International consulting company specializing in ag biotech R&D and business development, for sharing his insights about breeding cannabis.