Dramatic leaps of progress in the field of cannabis science have almost become commonplace in recent years. Each season brings the discovery of a novel terpenoid, new cannabinoid or receptor site, a fresh therapeutic application, refinements in lab testing or new ways of extracting cannabis essences with hyper purity. Yet, simmering in the background of these new and thrilling discoveries is a patient and far-sighted accumulation of hard, research-driven scientific data that will eventually bring greater depth to our understanding of cannabis’ origins.
In recent months, Phylos Bioscience — a cannabis testing laboratory in Portland, Oregon lead by Nishan Karasiik and Mowgli Holmes — announced The Cannabis Evolution Project and issued an open call for old and/or unique cannabis material to be submitted for DNA sequencing. With plants, as with all life, the answer to an organism’s essence and origin is found at its absolute core: the DNA.
“There are lots of stories of old, hidden stashes,” Holmes said of the project. “We’ve been reaching out to people all over the country and the world, trying to get people to dig up old samples, old dead seeds, pressed leaves, anything. We can get DNA out of all that stuff. And unless we get a lot of these older samples it will be hard to put the whole evolutionary story together.”
The Cannabis Evolution Project’s intent is not only to be able to tell someone if they have the real OG Kush (though that can and will happen too), but also to begin to definitively trace the paths of cannabis’ complicated historical and evolutionary journey. DNA sequencing of cannabis isn’t exactly new, however. Holmes is quick to point out that this project builds directly on Karl W. Hillig’s foundational work on the cannabis species (best summed up in a paper entitled “Genetic Evidence for Speciation in Cannabis” published in 2011), in which he sequenced and compared 157 individual, diverse samples of cannabis.
Hillig’s sample group ranged from drug to fiber cannabis, the ages of samples from ancient to more recent, and the data turned the classification system of the cannabis species on its figurative head. The DNA indicated that all fiber cannabis falls under the category of sativa, whereas all drug-types were indica. Shifts of designations in the cannabis gene pool is by no means anything new of course, and the species question has not been answered definitively, but Hillig’s work represented the first truly genetic, science-based attempt at trying to understand the plant’s complex and shadowy evolution.
Because of cannabis’ troubling status legally and socially for such a lengthy period of time, it’s often been sort of a missing puzzle piece in the historical record for many archeologists and researchers. While Hillig’s work filled in important data points, others have been working diligently at weaving all of those, and other loose skeins, together to give a view of the larger hempen tapestry. Researcher Robert Connell Clarke was one of the first to do this, initially with his cornerstone volume “Marijuana Botany” and more recently with co-author Mark Merlin in “Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany.” Clark and Merlin’s crucial volume offers an expansive depth of evidence that for the first time fully lays bare humankind’s long and vast relationship with cannabis in all its forms.
“It’s a 10,000 year evolutionary history, totally shaped by the plant’s interactions with humans, and it’s really complex and tangled. That book is amazing,” Holmes said. “We kind of see our sequencing work as being the final step in completing all the work they did.”
While Clarke and Merlin provide the wider historical context for cannabis, it is inevitable that the Phylos project will flesh out most of the finer details. Providing those details is only possible with a very large range of test samples and the hardest part may be accumulating a massive volume of data needed to build a sufficient enough foundation to extrapolate connections from.
“People keep calling us and showing up with old packets of seeds and crazy stories,” Holmes said. “We can’t know what they really have until we sequence it. We keep hearing rumors — so and so lives way out in the Mendocino hills, he’s been growing this and that for 30 years without stopping, never hybridized it. And so we’ll send people out to track it down, or try to get word to them. It’s not easy. People are a little nervous about this kind of thing, of course.”
What Holmes and his associates are attempting to do is not just sequence the genetics of OG Kush, but also to reach as far back into the fading mists of history as possible. Without that deep sense of scope, any attempt to build a comprehensive family tree of cannabis would end up looking like a photo of a tree’s top branches. It would show none of the strong branching arms beneath, nor the immense trunk that holds it all up.
Each genetic sample needs somewhat of a historical context as well — nearly 3,000-year-old Chinese cannabis seeds, tinctures from the 1930s, a handful of dead Colombian seeds that some wise old head stashed from a legendary load in the summer of ’74 — or it could just end up being another loose puzzle piece (until that family tree is fully grown, at least).
The tales behind some of these interesting acquisitions will hopefully be told some day, but the researchers at Phylos have a lot of lab work to do in the meantime. Some of the samples being examined are similar to or the same as those used in Hillig’s study — the ancient Chinese seeds and dusty samples from Russia’s Vavilov Institute, for instance — but the overall mass of them is far greater than he had assembled (somewhere around 1,000 to start) with many more to be accumulated over time.
Longtime cannabis activist Don Wirtshafter donated the contents of many antique tincture bottles from his collection, some of which were just as full as they were when removed from pharmacies at the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. Other samples continue to flow into Phylos not just from collectors and underground archivists, but also from the general population as word begins to spread and people dig through their cupboards or attics. Holmes says while people are often reluctant to work with a biotech company on a project like this — even the word ‘biotech’ being akin to a swearword to the more countercultural-minded — that sentiment is beginning to change.
“They usually relax once they realize that yeah, we’re trying to make a company that works, but the whole point of it is to help people get the strains they really want and to help people in the future breed absolutely outrageous plants,” Holmes said. “Crazy, delicious smelling, chocolate-orange plants with massive terpene profiles and huge spikes of THCV and CBDV.”
Phylos is working closely with Rob DeSalle, evolutionary systems researcher and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, to chart out the actual ‘tree’ from the data they collect. The lab’s advisory board is also well staffed with impressively credentialed scientists, who find fresh opportunities in this project to pursue their own examinations of plant biology, evolution and metabolism.
When the research has concluded, some of the more immediate benefits of Phylos’ project will become accessible soon. The creation of a strain registry and certification is likely one of the first results, and will go a long way to protecting the ‘intellectual property’ of a strain for the plant’s breeder. Over time, it may also go a long way in helping to remove some of the imposter plants from the general cannabis gene pool as clones become ‘known’ and ‘tagged’ through that registry.
“Humans have pushed this plant really far. But it’s about to get even more amazing,” Holmes said.