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Front Range Biosciences: Clean Stock Cannabis Cultivators Play a Genetic Game of Follow the Trait

Cannabis sativa, no matter what the individual chemistry might subcategorize it, is big business. Cannabidiol-based (CBD) hemp products decorate the commercial health and wellness landscape as far as the horizon reveals. New geographies are getting fired up, thereby fueling the surging cannabis legalization efforts coming soon to a dry demographic near you.

It would be a fool’s mission to endeavor a cannabis cultivation or downstream production facility without proper devotion and reverence to one’s plants. Whether you’re using the plant’s notable chemistry to treat a specific condition, or preventatively, such as for stress reduction, the medicinal mantras the plant communicates mean it’s not just about money. When millions of people are accessing cannabis products for therapeutic outcomes, the need for quality must be shouted from rooftops to anyone at all who will listen. After all, it should come as no surprise that pollutants like viruses, pesticides, and pathogens are much the antithesis of medicine.

I spoke with Dr. Jonathan Vaught, Co-Founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences (FRB). After spending more than 10 years in molecular diagnostics developing technology for human health and food safety, Vaught recognized that the answers to issues facing these industries started with agriculture. And as cannabis legalization spread and the industry soared, Vaught found cannabis to be “an incredible new crop that could transform agriculture and human health in a way that no other crop before it could.” He and his colleagues wanted to grow the highest quality young cannabis plants or clones. To achieve this, they developed their Clean Stock® quality control program that “leveraged tissue culture and pathogen screening.” The program resembles other quality assurance programs in manufacturing or production with standard operating procedures, quality check points and well-defined specifications that provide confidence in product quality.

Clean Stock enables FRB plants to be pesticide-free. “Pests are unfortunately an element of agriculture and horticulture, no matter what crop you grow,” Vaught discussed. “We begin with the healthiest and strongest plants where environmental stressors are minimized by constantly refreshing our stock with clean, vigorous plants from our tissue culture lab.”

Tissue culture (TC) relies on a sterile environment. “The sterility and specific environmental conditions of the TC lab result in different protocols and techniques,” Vaught said, “however at the end of the day, you are still growing and cloning plants.”

Tissue culture (TC) provides quickly matured plants grown under regulated conditions such that they’re more resistant to disease. TC has benefitted from its use in many other crops, especially those that “have some form of vegetative propagation or cloning as part of the nursery supply chain,” Vaught said. “I see tissue culture as being a valuable tool in cannabis and hemp since they are traditionally propagated asexually. It can also play a role in sexual production (seed) by preserving parental lines.”

Clean Stock utilizes an integrated pest management program that includes microbes and predatory insects, preventative applications of organic soaps and oils, and tests to screen for pathogens and pests, resulting in pass/fail grades for respective plants. Plants that pass move to the next phase of the production cycle.

There are over 900 types of viruses that can be detrimental to plants, as well as viroids, infectious agents that are smaller than viruses. Many viroids appear in specific plant species but can infect other species. FRB scientists test for viruses and seek to innovate new tests for cannabis-specific viruses and viroids. “Due to prohibition,” Vaught added, “cannabis pathology is significantly behind other plants regarding our knowledge of which viruses are problematic for cannabis or even how to accurately test for them.”

Additionally, FRB has created a breeding platform that utilizes genomics and modern breeding technology to “produce new varieties with traits such as minor cannabinoids, that perform across a range of growing conditions,” Vaught explained.

FRB tests the genetics of their plants, but Vaught says that their genetic testing is more than just looking at the plant’s DNA. “Most of our work is based on phenotypic observation, including chemical profiling,” he explained. “With a full chemical profile, we can determine how a trait may present itself in a plant variety and then target that trait for breeding.”

They, then, use DNA sequencing and the comparison between gene sequences of different varieties to develop markers based on several “alterations or differences” in the genome. These differences are called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or indels (insertions or deletions).

“The differences can cause changes in what we view as the phenotype, and because of the association of the phenotype to the specific SNP or indel, the marker in the DNA can be utilized to follow that trait and allow directed breeding and selection,” Vaught explained.

FRB has collaborated with the University of California-Davis and the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona. “The collaboration with UC Davis focuses on assembling a new reference genome and sequencing a line with common ancestry to many of the commercially available lines so we can create markers for our breeding program,” Vaught reported.

“The collaboration with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics involves research with low-THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] cultivars and building breeding and mapping populations to increase the number of markers we can work with, as well as developing basic knowledge of the biochemical systems in the plant,” Vaught continued. Although the data analysis from the projects is ongoing, FRB has initiated several crosses based on the analyzed data and have improved their ability to “hunt” for specific phenotypes. In 2020, FRB will be grasping the next rung on their evolutionary ladder by offering a high cannabigerol variety, and they have plans to announce the release of several other minor cannabinoid varieties as well as plants with novel terpene profiles.

FRB services licensed cannabis nurseries and hemp growers by providing high-quality seeds and clones and through technology-licensing agreements and service contracts. They can maintain the varieties of interested customers in their nursery Clean Stock program, enabling customers to purchase their clones from FRB instead of relying on in-house clone production.

As the industry grows and the risks of crop failure ride along in tandem, technologies such as Clean Stock, that ensure quality control and mitigate risk, will be critical as the competition escalates for growers to produce high-quality crops at lower costs. Those thunderous mantras arguing “better for less” aren’t going away, nor is the desire to ensure longevity with one’s prized cultivars.

As cannabis consumers continue to explore newfound freedoms and medicinal possibilities, the need for pristine plants devoid of disease and toxic compounds cannot be understated. Jonathan Vaught and his colleagues at Front Range Biosciences wanted to better understand cannabis, and so, they listened to their plants. Then, they wanted to guard their superior crop against the things that might harm it. By embracing quality control as creed, they’ve enhanced the health of their plants, transporting that vibrant vitality to consumers.

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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