In Search of the Science Behind Medical Marijuana
July 10, 2017 LIfestyle
DNA geneticist; Nolan Kane studies cannabis from a unique perspective— in the past he has studied chocolate and for many years, the sunflower, eventually mapping its genome, a sequence of more than three and a half billion nucleotides, and now he’s moved on to marijuana. Though its sequence is much shorter, roughly 800 million nucleotides, he considers it a far more intriguing plant.
It’s such an interesting plant, such a valuable plant,” says Nolan Kane, who specializes in evolutionary biology. “It’s been around for millions of years, and it’s one of man’s oldest crops. And yet there are so many basic problems that need to be answered. Where did it come from? How and why did it evolve? Why does it make all these suites of compounds? We don’t even know how many species there are.”
Standing in his laboratory greenhouse on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder looking at ten hemp plants that Kane recently procured for research purposes. These plants, like nearly all hemp varieties, carry extremely low levels of THC.
They may not look threatening, but their very presence here, in the confines of a major university lab, represents years of wrangling to win federal and university approval. Right now, Kane’s allowed to grow only hemp strains. The rest of his research material is cannabis DNA, which is supplied by Colorado growers who extract it using methods he’s taught them.
Kane fingers one of his innocuous-looking plants, expressing mild bemusement at the U.S. ban on commercial hemp cultivation. “Hemp produces fibers of unparalleled quality,” he notes. “It’s a tremendously high biomass crop that replenishes the soil and doesn’t require much in terms of inputs. We import tons and tons of hemp each year from China and even Canada, yet as a matter of federal policy, we can’t legally grow it. There are places where farmers in the U.S. can literally look across the Canadian border and see fields that are yielding huge profits.”
A sketchy outline of the cannabis genome already exists, but it’s highly fragmented, scattered into about 60,000 pieces. Kane’s ambitious goal, which will take many years to achieve, is to assemble those fragments in the right order. “The analogy I use is, we have 60,000 pages of what promises to be an excellent book, but they’re strewn all over the floor,” he says. “We have no idea yet how those pages fit together to make a good story.”
Many people are more than a little eager to learn how Kane’s story will play out. “There’s a certain pressure,” he says, “because this work will have huge implications, and anything we do in this lab will be under a lot of scrutiny. You can feel it. People are just wanting this to happen.”
Once the genome map is complete, enterprising geneticists will be able to use it in myriad ways, such as breeding strains that contain much higher levels of one of the plant’s rare compounds with medically important properties. “It’s like discovering some hidden motif deep in a piece of music,” Kane says. “Through remixing, you can accentuate it and turn it up so that it becomes a prominent feature of the song.”
“So much of science is incremental,” says Kane, “but with this cannabis work, the science will not be incremental. It will be transformative. Transformative not just in our understanding of the plant but also of ourselves—our brains, our neurology, our psychology. Transformative in terms of the biochemistry of its compounds. Transformative in terms of its impact across several different industries, including medicine, agriculture, and biofuels. It may even transform part of our diet—hemp seed is known to be a ready source of a very healthy, protein-rich oil.”
“Cannabis,” Kane says, “is an embarrassment of riches.”