Genomics vs. Genetics: Why Are They Important for Cannabis Research?

Written by Heather Ritchie

Genomics and genetics are two words often mistakenly used interchangeably. The term genomics describes the study of all elements of an organism’s genes, such as structure, function, evolution, or mapping of genomes. Genetics refers to the study of specific single genes and their roll in passing conditions or traits from generation to generation.

Cannabis is a complex and multi-purpose herb that produces oil, edible seed, fiber, and an abundance of cannabinoids like CBD, CBN, and THC. “It is also unique in that no other plants that we know of have the capacity to produce cannabinoids; the genes that encode the enzymes required to produce cannabinoids are unique to the cannabis genome.”

The Genetic Catalyst

The primary differences between the medical benefits and potency of the specific cannabinoids in the plant are attributed to genetically encoded enzymes that catalyze the last biosynthetic steps in the pathway of the cannabinoid. Thesecatalysts, including CBDA synthase and THCA synthase, transform the precursor molecule cannabigerolic acid into CBDA or THCA.Plants coded for hyperactive versions of THCA synthase produce higher levels of THCA and those coded for CBDA synthase make more CBDA.

Studying cannabis geneticspermits companies to further understand which parts of the plant’s structure control different functions, making it easier to breed plants more effectively and assess cultivar continuity. More recently,additional knowledge of the complete genome has raised awareness to the prospect of successfully creating other cannabis products like a sleepy-time tea or energy drink. Research helped by the genome map could potentially identify cannabis-based medications like an alternative to Viagra® or pain relievers.

The Future of Cannabis

In 2013, there wasn’t much genomic research available for cannabis, which is surprising given its popularity. Several scientists are hoping to change that like Daniela Vergara, a postdoctoral researcher inThe University of Coloradoat Boulder’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EBIO).

She moved to the U.S. from Columbia in 2007 and earned a PhD at Indiana University. While there she explored a long-debated evolutionary biology question: “Why do organisms bother with male/female sexual reproduction at all instead of having female members clone themselves in perpetuity?” One possible answer is that the male plants provide the variations that protect from diseases that could destroy a whole population. Essentially, genetic diversity provides protection for the entire species.

With that in mind, when Vergarare-located to Colorado, she decided to apply her background in evolutionary biology to cannabis. She’s dealt with various legal hurdles and other obstacles but, undeterred, she was able to get third-party DNA information from cannabis growers. From there it could be analyzed and sequenced without breaking the law. While cannabis is legal in Colorado now, it’s still illegal at the federal level and not allowed on campus. These limitations affect cannabis research everywhere.

Vergara published a paper in 2016, illustrating that cannabis chemovars provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse average around five and six percent THC content. However, those strains sold in legal markets in places like Seattle average approximately 20 percent. It’s a huge difference which makes it hard to gauge the actual health effects of cannabis widely available.


Usage of third-party information helps to explore the biological mysteries of the plant but is limiting. As more states come onboard with legalized cannabis, barriers like laws and regulations will diminish, providing better access to actually test plant material. Eventually, Vergara hopes to create an open-access genetic compendium of cannabis chemovars, like those that exist for other plants.

Other companies are also contributing to the quest for more knowledge of cannabis’s genetic composition. Phylos Bioscience, an agricultural genomics company in Portland, Oregon, uses contemporary computational biology and molecular genetics to better understand cannabis. Their goal is to create tools using science that allow the cannabis industry to expand sustainably and safely.

They’ve developed the most extensive cannabis DNA database in the world with thousands of plant samples from more than 80 countries. “It’s the most advanced population genetic visualization in existence.” Their servicescan be used by cultivators from small individual home-growers to large-scale commercial businesses.

Vergara and PhylosBioscience are just a few examples of the many people pioneering the study of the genetic and genomic makeup of cannabis varietiesto better understand the plant that’s been such an essential part of people’s culture and traditions. The hope is that we better understand the therapeutic benefits and long-term effects of cannabis use.

About the author

Heather Ritchie

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