Featured art by Larry Carlson
I was on Reddit’s /r/trees one day – an online forum made for cannabis enthusiasts – and came across this question; “Would it be possible for future geneticists to bring back extinct cannabis strains?”. Intrigued by the lack of response to this eccentric question, I decided to look into the possibility of bringing back strains from pre-history and what it would take for something like this to become reality.
Until three years ago, you couldn’t really use the term ‘designer baby’ in a conversation without thinking of some conceptual plot borrowed from a Philip K. Dick novel. Of course, the term itself has been around a long time, but is it possible to apply this dystopian trope to the idea of ‘designer’ cannabis? This could very well be a possibility thanks to a naturally sourced gene-editing technique called, CRISPR.
CRISPR stands for; Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR takes the sequence of DNA you want to manipulate, makes a single strand of genetic code called RNA, and then replaces the targeted sequence in the DNA.
It was first used on a human genome cell in 2013. Since then, this practice has remained an object of contested debate amongst geneticists of all kinds. Imagine having the luxury to systematically edit your offspring’s genes. Parents – at least those who will be able to afford it – could choose the size, eye and hair color long before their baby is even born.
The same ability can be applied to cannabis strains, only instead of eyes and ears, it would be the 85 different cannabinoid compounds up for manipulation. Depending on the combination, these compounds have the ability to treat specific ailments with effective results. Selective breeding would become obsolete in the wake of CRISPR’s ability for direct manipulation that would assist in creating new ‘super strains’. However, the human genome has been decoded for 22 years now, while the genome for cannabis has just been sitting around, unmapped.
Enter Mowgli Holmes, a 43-year-old geneticist from Eugene, Oregon with hopes to sequence the DNA of every cannabis strain in the world. Holmes anticipated the coming boom after his home state legalized cannabis in 2014. The federal government’s overall refusal to reschedule marijuana has caused a lack of subsidized research from being conducted, resulting in a collective knowledge gap amongst the cannabis community.
Researchers have already begun experimenting with CRISPR in plants to improve their resistance to pests and unwanted microbial decay. These early experiments will inevitably carry over into standard practice with those breeders willing to ignore the politics of genetic manipulation. Again, the general controversy surrounding this idea is universal across all industries and institutions. The fact that Holmes is relinquishing his findings to the public should help future authorities facilitate any needs in terms of oversight gaps, making the manipulation of phenotypes theoretically endless.
Genetic engineering tools like CRISPR coupled with Holmes’ iconoclastic attitude will ultimately coalesce to manifest an even wider availability of strains. You could even bring back extinct landraces and cross them with modern hybrids. Unfortunately, the idea of smoking some crazy dinosaur weed from the Jurassic Period will prove difficult.
Finding well preserved plant matter for DNA sequencing is an elusive endeavor despite having all the necessary tools and resources to create the perfect Frankenstein strain. The conditions ancient organic material goes through is rough because any traces of extractable DNA is typically destroyed by the time scientists get to possible samples. Plant matter on average is simply too fragile but who’s to say there isn’t something lying dormant in a piece of amber right now? I’m sure Jeff Goldblum is on it.