Did you know that the cannabis plant species shares more than 40% of its genome with the human species? Wild right?!
The finding is only one of many insights revealed by the long-awaited cannabis genome map detailing gene arrangement on the chromosomes, published November 8, 2018, in the journal Genome Research. To be fair, 99.9% of the human DNA sequence is identical among individual people – pretty amazing that given how different we feel from each other, those differences only account for 0.1% of our genes! So 40% overlap with cannabis DNA sounds high, but it’s really not.
Over the last several decades, scientists have started sequencing the genes of agricultural crops to improve cultivation practices (leading to some other highly controversial practices like genetically modified crops). “The chromosome map is an important foundational resource for further research which, despite cannabis’ widespread use, has lagged behind other crops due to restrictive legislation,” says Tim Hughes, PhD, a professor in the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research and co-leader of the study.
The researchers hope the map could speed up breeding efforts to make new strains with even more desirable medicinal properties, as well as varieties that can be grown more sustainably or more resistant to pests etc. This gets into tricky waters though – do we really want genetically modified weed? Hmm…
Is this why I love weed so much?
Like many organisms on earth, humans and cannabis are both eukaryotes, which means that their cells have a nucleus. Both organisms use DNA as their genetic material and share certain molecular and cellular processes due to their shared eukaryotic nature. The cannabis genome “only” has about 534 million genes strung together, opposed to our 3 billion. Each strain of the cannabis plant has unique genetics, which gives it unique characteristics.
While humans did not evolve to naturally produce THC or CBD, they are immensely useful in improving the human condition thanks to our endocannabinoid system, which helps our body to naturally engage with these components of cannabis, and is key to regulating hundreds of cellular and bodily functions.
The enzymes making THC and CBD are encoded by THCA and CBDA synthase genes, respectively. Both are found on chromosome 6 of the 10 chromosomes the cannabis genome is packaged into. There, the enzyme genes are surrounded by vast swathes of DNA which came from virus-like elements that colonized the genome millions of years ago.
Another exciting finding from the study was the discovery of the genes responsible for CBC synthesis, a minor and lesser-known cannabinoid that has unusual pharmacology including anti-inflammatory properties. The discovery of the gene responsible for CBC synthesis will make it possible for breeders to tailor its content in future varieties.
Whether these discoveries lead to helpful medical breakthroughs or just giant mutant weed monster plants someday, we have the popcorn out and are watching closely!
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