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The Importance of Genetics in Commercial Cannabis Cultivation

You could have a state of the start facility and the best growers money can hire but cultivation success starts and hinges on quality genetics.



A Short History of Cannabis Breeding


Cannabis sativa L. is the singly recognised strain of all commercially cultivated cannabis and indica, sativa and ruderalis are recognised subspecies. Cannabis is one of the world's oldest domesticated crops with evidence showing domestication as far back as 12,000 years.


In the last 60 years or so selective breeding of cannabis for potency really took off among underground growers who travelled the world in search of heirloom varieties known as landrace strains. Some of the most famous of these are Colombian Gold, Thai, Jamaican and Panama Red. All the thousands of cannabis strains available to buy on the modern market are heavily hybridized varieties that can all be genetically sourced to the earliest breeding of these landrace strains.


What's in a name?


Before continuing it's important to define some key terms that are especially relevant when talking about genetics. Some of these are recognised scientific terms and some are colloquial expressions that have emerged and been adopted by the cannabis community:

  1. Cultivar - a plant variety that has been selectively bred for its desired traits.

  2. Strain - a more colloquial term in the cannabis space that means the same as "cultivar."

  3. Genotype - the genetic constitution of an organism, its DNA "fingerprint".

  4. Phenotype - the observable properties of an organism e.g, height, architecture, colour etc. These are encoded by their genotype.

  5. Chemotype - refers to the chemically distinct properties of a cannabis plant usually determined based on secondary metabolite composition i.e. terpenes and cannabinoids. Currently III main chemotypes, high THC low CBD, low THC high CBD and a balanced 1:1 THC to CBD ratio.

  6. F1 hybrid - a term used in genetics to describe the first generation of offspring of two distinct parental types.

  7. Phenohunting - A colloquial expression to describe the process of finding and choosing cannabis cultivars based on desirable characteristics when germinating from seeds.

  8. Tissue Culture/ Micropropagation - developed in the late 19th century, a collection of techniques used to grow plant cells, tissues or organised under sterile conditions on a nutrient medium.

Why Great Genetics Matter


A solid and well-performing genetic increases your chances of developing consistency between growing cycles and commercial batches. Knowing the behaviour of a commercial strain means greater predictability which allows you to spot early warning signs that something is going wrong if you tweak any of your cultivation parameters.


A desirable commercial strain will have qualities beyond yield and potency that distinguish it from other cultivars. These include fast rooting rate, resistance to abiotic and biotic stress, desirable plant architecture for its growing environment i.e. indoor vs. greenhouse and outdoor, rich terpene profile and a structure that is suitable for machine trimming (where applicable).


Starting off with great genetics gives you the necessary head-start to deal with the other obstacles you will undoubtedly encounter during the rest of your production cycle. A subpar performing genetic could put stress on labour allocation such as requiring a greater amount of cultural controls when it comes to integrated pest management (IPM) and increasing critical inputs including fertilizer and water. As well as this, a low-yielding plant will decrease profit margins and delay a start-up's ability to reach that coveted return on investment.


Sourcing Genetics: Seeds vs Clones


One of the most important business considerations when deciding where to source your genetics is timing. Although many facilities harbour dreams of running "phenohunting" projects and happening upon a cultivar that ticks all the boxes and becomes part of their intellectual property, the time and the resources required for this process cannot be underestimated. For a thorough assessment of its characteristics, cuttings from germinated seeds are usually grown to flower with additional space allocated for mother plants which must be maintained until the process is completed. A particular skill-set is required to conduct thorough R&D on plants in order to decide if they are suitable candidates for commercial selection.


Experienced breeders also understand the difficulty in finding a great candidate for commercial cultivation with the most prestigious nurseries and seed banks germinating up to 10,000 seeds in their search for the "one." For smaller-scale projects, there is no guarantee of finding a winning cultivar and the quality of seeds and stability of phenotypes depends on breeder experience and expertise.


On the other hand, sourcing clones from a reputable nursery can accelerate your facility's route to market and take the grunt work out of finding your own star cultivar. The best nurseries test their genetics across different cultivation sites and provide exact cultivation data to ensure their clients are more likely to replicate the performance of each of their strain offerings. Sourcing genetics from clones could save you months or even years of work.


The Advent of Tissue Culture


The current gold standard for cannabis genetics from clones has been revolutionised by tissue culture technology. Tissue culture (TC), also known as micropropagation, involves growing plants from small pieces of plant tissue in a nutrient medium under sterile conditions. It is the best method for ensuring clean genetics - that is, plants that are free from viruses, viroids and other pathogenic infections.


Conventional non-TC nurseries can be a breeding ground for pests and diseases. Those lacking proper laboratory equipment might also be unable to guarantee their clones are free from Hop Latent Viroid meaning they are a high-risk source of plant material for facilities.


As the knowledge and demand for TC genetics expand more companies are expected to rise to the challenge of providing quality and clean genetics for the European medical cannabis market. Another increasingly popular option for facilities is building their own on-site TC labs and hiring experienced micropropagation technicians. However, finding suitable starting materials for future commercial offerings requires an initial phenotyping project.


Summary


The root of success for commercial cannabis cultivation starts with the right cultivar that is most suited for your growing environment and can consistently produce the product your market demands. No matter how impressive your facility infrastructure, staff and post-harvest processes, little will pull a subpar genetic over the line and reduce the economic challenges associated with improving its performance.


Big Leaf Consultants has an excellent network of contacts in the cannabis tissue culture industry in Europe. Get in touch today if you want to know more about improving your commercial strain options. We can also design phenotyping trials for your facility which can help you know what to look for in well-performing genetics.


References


https://hightimes.com/grow/history-hybrids-how-breeding-selection-led-modern-marijuana/


McPartland, J.M., 2018. Cannabis systematics at the levels of family, genus, and species. Cannabis and cannabinoid research, 3(1), pp.203-212.


Monthony, A.S., Page, S.R., Hesami, M. and Jones, A.M.P., 2021. The past, present and future of Cannabis sativa tissue culture. Plants, 10(1), p.185.

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