Over the past few years, we’ve been hearing a lot about CRISPR. What exactly is CRISPR? And what does it mean for the future of cannabis production?
The discovery of CRISPR
In 1972, biochemists Stanley N. Cohen and Herbert W. Boyer were the first to cut DNA into fragments. It was one of many milestones that revolutionized genetic modification. Since then, scientists have been altering the genetic makeup of various plants and species. And this is transforming food production, medicine, and other sectors.
A lot has changed in the past decade.
In 2011, two scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, began their collaboration. They soon co-developed the most powerful – and controversial – method for gene editing yet, and it’s called CRISPR/Cas9, or CRISPR, for short.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) is often described as “genetic scissors.” It is a powerful gene editing tool. As it allows scientists to quickly and accurately cut and paste genes into DNA. It has endless applications, and it’s already being used in cannabis production around the world.
In technical terms, CRISPR/Cas9 comprises of two parts: the Cas9 enzyme
and a piece of RNA.
The Cas9 enzyme is a protein that cuts the strands of DNA at a precise location in the genome. Then, the RNA, called guide RNA (gRNA), is a 17-20 nucleotide sequence that binds to DNA and guides the enzyme to the right part of the genome. After that, if the cell is ‘broken’, scientists can insert the correct version of the gene for the cell to work properly. Finally, the cell then recognizes that the DNA is damaged and repairs it.
What does this mean for cannabis production?
CRISPR revolutionized gene editing on many fronts. It has made gene editing cost-effective, efficient, and simple. CRISPR is so simple that it is now being adapted for use in all sorts of ways:
- It’s used in medicine, agriculture, and can also transform the future of biofuels.
- CRISPR even has the potential to edit out allergens from foods such as peanuts.
- The best part is, CRISPR works the same way for all species, including in plants.
In 2018, the US Department of Agriculture announced it won’t regulate CRISPR-modified plants as long as the modifications are made using related plant DNA.
For cannabis companies, the future looks bright. In 2018, Ebbu, a company acquired by Canopy Growth Corp was one of the first companies to use gene editing technology to produce single-cannabinoid strains. That same year, Sunrise Genetics successfully mapped out the cannabis genome. In 2020, CanBreed, an Israeli genetic seeds company, secured a CRISPR/Cas9 patent, making it the first ever CRISPR license in the cannabis industry.
Companies will now be able to innovate at a faster rate (thanks to the USDA’s move towards deregulation) and grow cannabis more efficiently while saving money.
What are the benefits?
In cannabis production, the benefits of CRISPR gene editing are endless:
- Some plants can be enhanced to express stronger indica or sativa traits.
- Some can be modified to produce more cannabinoids and terpenes.
- CRISPR can also remove undesirable genes to produce high quality buds every time.
- It can also be used to inhibit, eliminate, or increase THC production, depending on the need.
- CRISPR can also pave the way towards understanding and creating other cannabinoids other than THC and CBD.
- Other benefits include increasing crop yields, while minimizing nutrient and chemical use—a win for growers who want to reduce dependency on pesticides.
With CRISPR, the cannabis industry has the potential to take advantage of the US governments lax regulation of gene editing technology. The industry can create new strains, reduce undesirable genes, modify the smallest traits, the list goes on. While there remains concerns about the ethics in applying this technology. CRISPR remains one of the most powerful tools for gene editing today. Time will only tell what the future holds for gene editing in cannabis production.
What do you think of using CRISPR technology in cannabis production? Is it an exciting new frontier, or a technology that must be used with caution? Let us know in the comments.