February 18, 2019

Cannabis Germplasm 101: Panel Discussion

How can we overcome the lack of accessible germplasm resources and begin proper plant breeding programs in cannabis?



Last week, Ellis Smith, with American Cannabis Company, and Dr. Mitch Day, Scientist and Entrepreneur, hosted a panel of experts to discuss germplasm and micropropagation within the cannabis industry.

As a renowned subject matter expert on micropropagation and genetic analysis, Dr. Mitch Day knows there’s an unsolved problem in the cannabis industry: a significant lack of public germplasm repositories. Day believes cultivators can benefit from micropropagation with disease-resistant cloning and large-scale cultivar storage for advanced breeding programs. In this webcast, Day discusses the benefits, challenges, and importance of germplasm with cannabis industry experts Dylan Wilks, founder and CTO of Orange Photonics, as well as Dr. Max Jones, Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph, Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation.

The Panel

As a third-generation optical engineer, Wilks’ company produces a portable liquid chromatograph designed to make cannabinoid and terpene testing a part of the cultivator’s process throughout the growing cycle. With eyes on consistency and accurate phenotyping, the Light Lab uses light to measure the chemical composition of the plant material, thus offering growers the ability to select particular traits for cultivation.

Dr. Jones, on the other hand, is actively engaged in micropropagation through the university as he attempts to gain licensing for a public gene bank to preserve cannabis genetics as well as the genetics of other endangered species of plants. He believes funding from the lucrative cannabis industry could help prevent the extinction of different types of botanicals.

What is Germplasm?

Dr. Day explains that germplasm is not just the seeds and cuttings of cannabis, but the overall genetic potential of the plant. Through phenotyping, growers can quickly determine certain traits about that particular plant. For example, Skunk #1 took around nine generations and about 20,000 plants to stabilize, but today, the strain is recognized as good germplasm with a well-known, recorded breeding history.

“When we talk about good genetics, we loosely mean germplasm,” Day stated. To illustrate the impact of quality genetics in agriculture, Day shared an image of corn yields between 1866 and 2017. Corn yields remained low until around 1940, which double-cross, corn hybrid seed started being used for cultivation. Whether growing hemp or cannabis, Day says, “Breeding is the most effective way to increase yields, and germplasm is the raw material for that breeding.”

Regulations and Maintaining Compliance

In hemp growing operations, keeping plants below .3% THC is critical, and Wilks explains, growers need accurate testing as environmental conditions affect THC yield. By utilizing Light Lab, producers can test fields throughout the season to ensure compliance. Additionally, in cannabis production, “Testing and chemo-typing play into the germplasm situation,” Wilks stated. Breeding strains with specific characteristics, such as cannabinoid and terpene profiles, requires thousands of tests, which is difficult to do and can be costly for the producer.

Dr. Jones also chimed in, stating, “Quality assurance [in Canada] requires consistency of product, and there’s too much variability in seed, so much of Canadian-grown cannabis is done through cuttings and micropropagation.” Jones goes on to state many of the published protocols have not been reproducible, and while there’s a lot of work to do, they are making progress.

Anticipating approval from Canadian authorities, Dr. Jones envisions a public, non-profit germplasm repository similar to other crops. Long-term, he hopes to receive some government funding for the project, but in the interim, he plans to work on a cost-recovery basis using the cannabis industry to support a broader mandate of plant preservation and long-term stability for endangered plant species.

Jones explained, “It’s important to collect genetics now.” Many heirloom and landrace varieties could be lost for future breeding efforts without actively preserving natural genetics. As breeders create cultivars with improved genetics for yield and disease resistance, many original traits and genetic risk being lost.

Day agreed, “There are feral populations all over North American which need to be collected, cataloged, and used as a resource.” Not just the elite strains are important for genetics, other less marketable strains may offer other beneficial traits like natural pest resistance.

Wilks also commented how important genetic diversity is to the industry, “We’ve done a fair amount of work with landrace and feral strains, which produce interesting minor cannabinoids, some we haven’t even identified yet.”

In conclusion, Dr. Jones reiterated how important it is to have public germplasm collections accessible to all. “When people are willing to donate genetics to gene banks generously, then everyone benefits,” he urged.


 

An unsolved problem in the cannabis industry is the lack of significant germplasm repositories with good databases to support plant breeding. This panel discussion addresses this issue and provides insight into the current germplasm marketplace.

Guest Panelist: Dr. Mitch Day, Scientist and Entrepreneur

Mitch is a subject matter expert on micropropagation and analysis of genetic information. Micropropagation offers two major benefits to cultivators: disease-free cloning and economical large-scale storage of cultivars for breeding programs.

Guest Panelist: Dylan Wilks, Founder & CTO of Orange Photonics

Spectroscopy, entrepreneurship, and invention are a family legacy for Dylan. His grandfather is the “Father of Infrared Technology” and one of the industry founders in the 1940’s. Dylan has led optics projects serving NASA’s Mars Rover as well as air and ground-based imaging systems, specialized lighting (lasers, fiber illuminators, etc) and within the infrared spectroscopy disciplines. Dylan has also worked extensively within the petroleum industry and chaired an ASTM method.

Guest Panelist: Andrew Maxwell Phineas Jones, Assistant Professor, Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation