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by Brigid McNutt

Two Canadian researchers have sequenced the genome of Cannibas sativa in an attempt to break through the plant’s stigma and use it to its full potential .


Due to its past legal status, studies on Cannabis sativa—the plant that produces industrial hemp and marijuana—have lagged behind other plants.   Though it is used as a source of material, nutrition, and medicine, the plant’s association with marijuana has tainted its reputation, said Jon Page, a University of Saskatchewan plant biochemist and co-leader of the study.


“I think more information about how the plant works and how its genetics are organized will help people understand its uses.  And maybe through that, the stigma will slowly erode,” he said. 


Essentially, the research team has  decoded the “blue print” of how the organism works to gain a better understanding of it.  This is the first genome of a medicinal plant to be sequenced.


Page stressed that hemp and marijuana are not the same.  The drug strand, containing psychoactive substances, is used for recreation and medicinal use.  The non-drug strand is used for fiber and seed. 


In their studies, the researchers found that the two strands have  different genomic structures. 


“It may give the public more understanding of why these plants are different,” said Page.


Tim Hughes, a  University of Toronto professor of cellular and biomolecular research, was the other project leader.  He said the results will have practical applications for hemp producers.


“Right now you need a special license to grow hemp, and hemp makes a tiny amount of THC.  Now (that) we have molecular markers for the enzymes that make THC, it should be possible to screen strains for the absence of these enzymes,” said Hughes. 


The pair hopes that in the future they can breed for hemp without THC so that farmers will no longer have  to license their operations  through Health Canada. 


This year, roughly 25,000 acres of hemp were sewn in Canada. 


The pair chose to make their findings available on a public database, so the research can be shared with other scientists.


“We think that the genome will be useful for answering some basic scientific questions.  For example, we are interested in the idea of domestication,” said Page.


He hopes the information will be used a number of ways, whether it be breeding for healthier oil, better cold tolerance in crops, or improved medicinal use.


Hughes believes more investigation will be done, as their study “certainly makes (the area) more approachable scientifically.”

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