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The Future of Cannabis Genetics

Written by Loren DeVito, PhD

How new molecular editing tools are shaping cultivars

Cannabis genetics is an essential facet of the industry that affects every part of the production process. Cannabis breeding is carefully controlled to produce a multitude of different cultivars, each specifically tailored to create a unique experience. While most are familiar with the highly debated species – Cannabis sativa, indica, and ruderalis – there are many crosses between these, commonly known as hybrids. These contain different levels of phytochemicals than the parental branch, and have varied effects on the body.1For many years, cannabis growers have mostly followed traditional plant breeding, applying basic Mendelian methods to select desirable traits from parent crosses. However, within the past few years, cultivators have integrated the advances in molecular biology into their work, providing innovative methods to aid in cannabis breeding.

The Human Genome project, completed and published in 2001, provided a genetic quantitative blueprint for understanding how the human body is built and maintained.2With this genetics information, researchers in molecular biology identified a novel genetic tool that allows for selective changes by targeting breaks in DNA.3,4

This tool, called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated protein 9 (Cas9), has quickly became a popular method for genetic editing. In this system, a short guide RNA (a cousin to DNA)programs an enzyme (called endonuclease)to target a piece of DNA and make specific cuts.5 CRIPSR/Cas9 has recently even used to edit living human cells.6 But what does this have to do with cannabis?

The CRISPR-cas9 system, which exists as a part of the immune system of bacteria and archaea, another type of microorganism, will increase the ability of cultivators to create tailored cultivars with specifically selected genes.6,7Compared to traditional methods, using CRISPR-cas9 will take years off the breeding process, and specific gene-editing will be more precise and less costly.7,8 In addition to editing genes that affect the levels and types of phytochemicals and terpenes, this tool will allow breeders to create disease-resistant cannabis plants with higher yields – perhaps even reducing the needs for pesticides, a significant concern for consumers.8

So, is this is a win-win for the industry and patients and consumers? This past year, Sunrise Genetics, Inc. announced that they had successfully mapped the cannabis genome for the first time. While the CRISPR-cas9 system has certainly unlocked incredible innovation that could re-shape the way cannabis is bred, as with any newer technology, only time (and a continued adherence to strict testing) will tell.


  1. Andre, C.M., Hausman, J-F, Guerriero, G., “Cannabis sativa: The Plant of the Thousand and One Molecules”, Front Plant Sci, 2016, Volume 7.
  2. Lander, E.S., et al., “Initial Sequencing and Analysis of the Human Genome”, Nature, 2001, Volume 409.
  3. Jinek, M., Chylinski, K.,Fonfara, I., Hauer, M., Doudna, J.A., Charpentier, E. “A Programmable Dual-RNA-Guided DNA Endonuclease in Adaptive Bacterial Immunity”, Science, 2012, Volume 337.
  4. Cong, L., Ran, F.A., Cox, D., et al., “Multiplex Genome Engineering Using CRISPR/Cas Systems”, Science, 2013, Volume 339.
  5. Ophinni, Y., Inoue, M., Kotaki, T., Kameoka, M., “CRISPR/Cas9 System Targeting Regulatory Genes of HIV-1 Inhibits Viral Replication in Infected T-cell Cultures”, Scientific Reports, 2018, Volume 8.
  6. Adli, M., “The CRISPR Tool Kit for Genome Editing and Beyond”, Nature Communications, 2018, Volume 9.
  7. Bortesi, L., Fischer, R., “The CRISPR/Cas9 System for Plant Genome Editing and Beyond”, Biotechnology Advances, 2015, Volume 33.
  8. Maxmen, A., “Transgenic Pot Could Soon Hit Labs”, Nature, 2018, Volume 559.

9. Bomgardner, M.M., “CRISPR: A new toolbox for better crops”, Chemical &Engineering News, 2017, Volume 95.

About the author

Loren DeVito, PhD

Loren DeVito, PhD is a neuroscientist and science writer with expertise in cannabis science and medicine. She is committed to communicating evidence-based information about cannabis and its healing properties. Learn more about her work at

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