The genetic secrets of everyone's favorite munchie-inducing plant have finally been unlocked. Last week, a company called Medicinal Genomics announced that it sequenced the genomes for cannabis sativa and cannabis indica—two of the three species of marijuana (the third is cannabis ruderalis). But stoners should put down their celebratory joints. This doesn't mean that super-potent cannabis strains are on the horizon; instead,Medicinal Genomics plans to use its research to help scientists breed marijuana strains that get smokers less high but have more medicinal benefits.
Medicinal Genomics founder Kevin McKernan, a veteran of the Human Genome Project (he managed the R&D team for the project at MIT), first became interested in the medicinal qualities while studying of marijuana after some friends pointed him in the direction of a study claiming that certain cannabis compounds can shrink tumors. "The challenge is that there is a potpourri of cannabinoids, and we can't measure what those are. We need a genetic understanding of the plant," says McKernan.
In addition to shrinking tumors, other potential benefits of the 85 cannabinoids in the plant include calming inflammation and reducing cancer-related pain. But over the past 30 years, growers have hyper-bred the plant for THC (the compound that gets smokers high), effectively eliminating many of the other useful cannabinoids.
So Medicinal Genomics set out to sequence the cannabis genomes and bring some of those semi-extinct cannabinoids back into the plant. The company has moved quickly—it started sequencing indica and sativa in June, and is already finished—-but the process cost $200,000, and Medicinal Genomics expects to ultimately spend another $200,000 on refining the results.
Even though it is becoming increasingly cheap and easy to sequence human DNA, the process is more expensive for other species. "They have a reference genome [the Human Genome Project), and since humans are only different by one in 800 bases, the cost of sequencing the next person is suddenly very, very cheap," explains McKernan. Cannabis, on the other hand, has no reference genome.
"It took us about a month to collect data. The hard part is assembling it and making sense of it," says McKernan.
The next step for Medicinal Genomics is to find strains that are high in therapeutic cannabinoids like CBD, a compound that has been shown to reduce inflammation, anxiety, and nausea. "Our plan is to understand genetics of this so that companies that are interested in making drugs from [cannabis] have better info to work with," says McKernan. When companies come knocking, Medicinal Genomics will do more sequencing and analysis to help them breed plants that express higher levels of medicinal compounds. (Medicinal Genomics does not breed its own plants, though the Massachusetts-based company has its lab in—where else?—the Netherlands.)
According to McKernan, major pharmaceutical companies already have an interest in medicinal marijuana. GW Pharmaceutical, for example, has developed a cannabis-derived drug called Sativex that is used to treat muscle stiffness, bladder problems, and neuropathic pain from multiple sclerosis. Sativex is already available in Germany, Spain, and the U.K., where it is marketed by Bayer.
Interested in helping Medicinal Genomics decode cannabinoids? The company is releasing an iPad app in the fall that will contain some of its data. "There's a bottleneck [with research] because in the States and it's illegal to handle marijuana without a license," says McKernan. "By putting the data on the web, everyone in the world can study this."
[Image: Flickr user spotreporting]