The changing legal landscape around cannabis has accelerated research to a pace that has never been possible before. Advancements are constantly being made in understanding the many molecules the plant produces, and their effects on the human body.
But some of this research is going further, pushing beyond the traditional paradigm of the agricultural production of cannabinoids to look for novel ways of industrially producing cannabis medicine—without the need for cannabis plants, at least not as we currently think of them.
An article published last February in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science called Cannabis sativa: The Plant of the Thousand and One Molecules gives some indication of what this bizarre future might look like.
The article starts out innocently enough, cataloguing the diverse biochemistry of cannabis, from cannabinoids to terpenes and phenols. But it shifts toward the end, moving from cataloguing compounds to discussing novel ways of producing them without the need for traditional agriculture.
Hairy root cultures
Hairy root cultures are produced when plant roots are exposed to the bacterium Agrobacterium rhizogenes, which alters the roots so that they grow in a way that is ideally suited for scalable production in artificial media. It also makes them particularly well suited for genetic manipulation, which should theoretically allow hairy root cultures to produce secondary metabolites (think cannabinoids and terpenes) at rates that are equal to or higher than intact plants.
What’s more, hairy root cultures can be incubated in the dark. Yes, that’s right—no more ghastly hydro bills and expensive grow-lights and air-circulation systems, and no more trying to finagle the logistics of a greenhouse that meets Health Canada’s stringent requirements. The potential for cost-reduction is mind-boggling.
One experiment in this area has already shown proof of concept that small amounts of cannabinoids can be obtained from cannabis root cultures that haven’t been genetically altered. It is likely that with the application of advanced bioengineering techniques, these root cultures could produce custom tailored cannabinoid profiles at a commercially viable scale and a greatly reduced cost compared to traditional agriculture.
Several companies around the world, including the Belgian company Green2Chem, are already utilizing this strategy to produce various other plant-derived compounds for pharmaceutical and other applications.
Cell suspension cultures
Cell suspension cultures are, as you might guess, suspensions of cells in a liquid medium that multiply or ‘culture’ over time, much like yeast or kombucha. While, at present, cannabis cell cultures have not successfully been induced to produce cannabinoids, the authors of the abovementioned article have suggested numerous promising routes of inquiry, including genetic engineering and the manipulation of environmental factors, that could eventually lead to a cell culture capable of producing substantial amounts of THC and other useful compounds.
While this seems at present to be to be a more distant prospect than hairy root cultures, it is ultimately just as promising. A single cell line could be propagated indefinitely, given the right nutrients and medium, in a way that is much simpler to execute and takes up a great deal less space and electricity than warehouse or greenhouse production.
It seems likely that once both of these techniques have been developed to the point of commercial viability, each will have its own set of unique advantages and disadvantages relative to the other, and likewise to other traditional methods of production.
And this is not to propose a future where all cannabinoids come from lab-cultured ‘Frankenweeds’—these methods will never produce the ‘dank buds’ that so many prefer—but they will produce extracts of all kinds, potentially bringing the cost of those sorts of products down substantially.
It will no doubt be some time before we start to see cultured cannabinoids available to consumers, but in the meanwhile and the long run, it will be exciting to see how this marriage between science and cannabis plays out—in this scenario and countless others.
Featured image via Cornell University.