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Smell Test

How an untangling of the cannabis genome could help standardize strains for mass consumption

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Researchers say that 30 specific genes are essential to the production of terpenes.
  • Researchers say that 30 specific genes are essential to the production of terpenes.

When the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's massive successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope, is rocketed into orbit around the sun in October 2018, astronomers will aim its infrared cameras deep into space and time (13.5 billion years into the past) to witness the births of the first galaxies, shortly after the Big Bang; a glimpse, essentially, into the genetic strands of the universe.

What is it made of? And how has that determined what it looks like? What it smells and tastes like?

The latter is actually a question that scientists with an earthier bent have been busy decoding, with microscopes fixed not on the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, but on the coiling DNA of the cannabis plant.

As published last week in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, researchers at the University of British Columbia have identified the genes which give marijuana's myriad strains their distinctive aromas. They say that 30 specific genes are indispensable to the production of terpenes, organic hydrocarbon compounds emitted by the plant that determine just how skunky, citrusy, piney or cheesy it will seem to your nostrils and taste buds. Why not tweak one, two or 10 of the genes to customize your harvest or patent a Frankenstein strain (odorless grass for the stealth-inclined?) to whet the appetites of a niche customer segment?

While the prospect of genetically modified marijuana is bound to stir up some paranoia, the researchers say that the potential windfall from their discovery is a benign nudge toward standardization that the growing industry should embrace.

"The goal is to develop well-defined and highly reproducible cannabis varieties," says Jörg Bohlmann, a UBC professor involved in the study, in a press release. "This is similar to the wine industry, which depends on defined varieties such as Chardonnay or Merlot for high value products."

Standardization begets commercialization, which begets big profits, which tend to consolidate in the hands of a powerful and ambitious (greedy?) few. "Designer weed" could be a boon to growers, retailers and consumers expecting a consistent product, but what of the wabi-sabi and egalitarian ethos so endemic to a cannabis culture that historically has objected to the mammon-centric values of "industry"?

As Kevin Sabet, who opposes the commercialization of marijuana as the head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told The Cannabist this week, "Ultimately, marijuana legalization is all about making a small number of investors very rich." ♦