Are Identical Cannabis Cultivars Genetically the Same?

Written by Heather Ritchie


To answer this question, it is essential to understand the chemical structure of cannabis. This herb makes a variety of products like edible seed, oil, fiber, and most importantly, cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds in the plant that qualify cannabis as a drug and control its potency and part of the medical benefits.

No other plant that we know of has the ability to produce cannabinoids and the genetics that code the enzymes that produce cannabinoids are specific to the cannabis genome. These enzymes act as catalysts for the final biosynthetic steps in the path of the cannabinoid. These catalysts, THCA synthase, and CBDA synthase determine if the plant has higher levels of THCA or CBDA, respectively.

Plants with THCA that is then decarboxylated to form THC, produce psychoactive effects when THC binds to our cannabinoid receptors. Specific effects of THC are alterations of mood, movement, cognition, perception, and memory.

Cannabis varieties high in CBD significantly contribute to the medical efficacy of the plant. CBD has no psychoactive effects and counteracts the cognitive effects of THC. Since its non-psychotropic, it’s currently an exception to regulatory code that bans cannabis because of THC. Many medical cannabis users may notbe prepared for the psychoactive effects of THC, so products that only have CBD offer some of the therapeutic and medical benefits of cannabis without the high.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

Cannabis Chemovars

Two main cannabis classifications associate with the cannabinoids in the plant and their therapeutic benefits. Plants can be termed as Cannabis indicaor Cannabis sativa. Indica varieties typically have a higher yield and grow faster. Medicine produced from these plants has lower THC and higher CBD; conversely sativa plants have more THC and smaller amounts of CBD. These plants are tall and thin and take longer to mature.

As of 2018, there are over 6,000 hybridized cannabis chemovars based on approximately 60 original landrace plants. Hybridization is the direct result of years of growers crossing varieties of cannabis plants to create traits that didn’t exist before the crossing.

“As a result of severe overbreeding, the chemistry of the plant no longer has any reliable relationship to the physical morphology.” Now the only way to reliably determine the medical attributes is through standard lab analyses. Many people labeling their products sativaor indica do so because of their effects instead of their genetics causing misrepresentation of the products consumed.

Research on Cannabis Cultivar Genetics

Now to answer the question at hand. As mentioned above, growers that don’t lab test their products label their crop by the various effects it produces. Research proves that the variety names that many cultivators use to portray their product do not provide significant meaning.

One study illustrated this “by using 14,031 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) genotyped in 81 cannabis and 43 hemp samples, to show that cannabis and hemp are significantly differentiated at a genome-wide level.” As a result of the genotyping, researchers were able to prove that the distinctions between cannabis populations aren’t limited to the genes underlying the THC production.

They found an average correlation linking the genetic structure of cannabis chemovars and information reported about their C.indica and C.sativaancestry, thus proving that the variety names don’t often reflect their actual genetic identity.  In addition, the study showed that hemp’s genetic composition is more like indica than sativa.

Medical Cannabis and Efficacy

So how does this effect medicinal cannabis products? When patients look for the right strain that produces the desired effects, they expect truth in advertising.Many growers not only mislabel their product to reflect its effects, some rename strains because they believe it will sell better or they really don’t know what they have. Why does one OG Kush cause you to feel mellow while another makes you fall asleep? Which dispensary sells the “actual” Blue Dream genetic lineage?

These are important questions for patients seeking relief from pain, nausea, and a variety of other illnesses and symptoms. Patients with Aids, epilepsy,or cancer rely on cannabis often when no other alternatives exist.

Again, there’s no way to ensure product consistency without genetic testing.  Nishan Karassik of Phylos Bioscience says that “Incorporating modern scientific techniques and tools into the cannabis industry could create more consistent and enjoyable experiences for consumers, reduce costs for cultivators, and elevate the cannabis experience for everyone.”

Cross-breeding chemovars has created unstable genetics and makes the plants’ offspring susceptible to tremendous unpredictability and variability.It leads to higher costs and risks for growers. Companies like Phylos Bioscience look forward to a future where cannabis chemovars are more regulated with consistent levels of THC, as well as recognizable scents, and concentrated amounts of therapeutic cannabinoids. Stabilizing cannabis genetics and genome mapping are critical elements required to provide consistent results for the patients that desperately need a guarantee of medical efficacy.

About the author

Heather Ritchie

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