Study finds large gaps in the scientific knowledge of cannabis genome

In an international study published recently, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan report that combined scientific effort would be needed to assemble and map the genome of cannabis to unravel its full potential for human health and agriculture.

Study finds large gaps in the scientific knowledge of cannabis genome
Unlocking the full potential of cannabis for agriculture and human health will require a coordinated scientific effort to assemble and map the cannabis genome, says a just-published international study led by the University of Saskatchewan researchers. Image credit: David Stobbe for the University of Saskatchewan.

The researchers performed a wider scale statistical analysis of existing data and studies reported in the Annual Review of Plant Biology journal and concluded that there are larger gaps in the scientific knowledge of this multi-purpose, high-demand crop.

According to the researchers, “Considering the importance of genomics in the development of any crop, this analysis underlines the need for a coordinated effort to quantify the genetic and biochemical diversity of this species.”

The team includes scientists from the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States report that less than 50% of the cannabis genome is mapped accurately, nearly 10% of the genome is missing, and another 10% to 25% remains unmapped.

This means that we lack the foundation on which to build a molecular breeding program for cannabis comparable to what exists for other crops. Developing a high-quality genetic blueprint would provide the building blocks for genomics-based breeding and applications to human and animal health, while strengthening university-industry partnerships.”

Tim Sharbel, Study Lead Author and Plant Scientist, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan

Sharbel stated that the study outcomes will serve as a breakthrough for several types of research performed through the University of Saskatchewan-led Cannabinoid Research Initiative of Saskatchewan (CRIS).

The interdisciplinary team included USask researchers from the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, the School of Environment and Sustainability, and the College of Medicine.

These data are crucial for setting up a core collection of genotypes which can be used to study various cannabis traits,” added Sharbel.

Sharbel observed that current acceptance of cannabis by society and government has increased the interest of companies in medical applications of cannabis. He calls for help from medicinal plant industry partners to financially support academic research that will map, compare, and make the best use of the closely linked genomes of cannabis, hops, and hemp.

This initiative would become part of an industry-driven effort to exchange resources and improve cannabis, hemp, and hops for medicinal and industrial properties,” he said.

If we can publish case studies to show that certain compounds can treat human disorders with statistical significance, then getting such information into the medicare system—for example, as a basis for a Drug Identification Number assigned to a drug product before it can be marketed in Canada—would be of great benefit to companies.”

Tim Sharbel, Study Lead Author and Plant Scientist, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan

Before joining USask, Sharbel studied medicinal plants in collaboration with both industry and academic partners for 15 years in Europe, which involved an investigation of the effects of St. John’s wort on dementia and the German chamomile herb on digestive disorders.

Medicinal plants are hugely important to society, have long traditional use throughout human history, and represent important reasons to protect biodiversity. The emergence of the cannabis industry is a good driver for a larger goal of bringing traditional medicinal plants into the mainstream.

Tim Sharbel, Study Lead Author and Plant Scientist, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan

From the limited data, the researchers identified evidence for the prospective health benefits of cannabis, such as spasticity in multiple sclerosis, treatment for pain, and reduced use of opioids.

The study also underlines the adverse short-term effects of THC—the main psychoactive compound found in cannabis—like increased anxiety and fatigue, reduced cognitive function, and prospective long-term consequences, which include permanent loss of intelligence, memory, judgment, and mental focus, as well as addiction.

According to the researchers, “It is critical to recognize cannabis and cannabinoids as drugs with potential benefits and associated risks, as would be the case for the investigation of any novel drug.”

The researchers also found evidence supporting the development of hemp-type cannabis as a highly digestible, protein-rich food source that does not cause an allergic reaction.

Source:
Journal reference:

Kovalchuk I., et al. (2020) The Genomics of Cannabis and Its Close Relatives. Annual Review of Plant Biology. doi.org/10.1146/annurev-arplant-081519-040203.

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