Cannabis strains (cultivars) cause plenty of debate. Seeds from a single variety can express a multitude of phenotypes and profiles. And clones of a single phenotype can mutate and succumb to change. Terpene and cannabinoid profiles can, however, be kept consistent down a long lineage of generations, clone after clone. In fact, genetic stability has helped prove cannabis is medicine to the feds – once or twice.

For a half-century, clones have been used by breeders to produce consistent cannabis with likewise profiles time and time again.

Seeding inconsistencies

A popular study conducted by Dalhousie University last year discovered that terpene genetics are a key between indica and sativa strains on the market today. At the same time, the researchers also discovered how terribly inconsistent strains have become on store shelves. (1) Thankfully, as the lead scientist behind a Dalhousie University study said in an email, clones can preserve terpene and cannabinoid profiles crop after crop.

Plants grown from seed will be unique from each other. If a bunch of seeds in a seed pouch are all labeled with the same “name”, then that name won’t signify much because each seed will produce a unique plant. It’s possible, however, that those seeds all came from the same mother plant, in which case it’s possible that all of the seeds are siblings with each other (i.e. same mother and father).

But if you propagate from cuttings or via tissue culture, which is the standard practice now for any large-scale commercial entity, then large numbers (theoretically infinite) of genetically identical plants can be generated and then it would make sense to assign names to each unique “strain” that is propagated.

Professor Sean Myles

Three days after this clarification, research by The University of Guelph was published that mildly countered Myles’ conjecture. Mosaicism, the presence of multiple genetic lines in a single cell, occurred in a lineage of cannabis clones due to genetic mutations according to the study. (2)

Skunk #1, Grown from seed and photographed by Flower Patch Humboldt, seeds by AG Seed Co (Todd McCormick.) The origin of the Skunk seeds are as follows: Skunkman Sam (1988) > Mel Frank > reproduced by Frank in 1996 after 8 years of storage > 24 more years of storage > selectively reproduced by McCormick (AG) in 2020.

From clones to homozygotes

Rolling back the clock about 50 years, breeders were put to the test. Cultivating genetics capable of retaining consistent clones was one rite of passage to enter an elusive circle. One circle of breeders, formally known as Sacred Seeds Collective, disbanded after mysterious arrests in the 1980s; infamous for involvement with Skunkman Sam (David Watson). (3)

Coincidentally, HY Mohan Ram released two studies in 1982. Dr. Rita Sett and Mohan Ram from the University of Delhi in India were the first to reverse the sex of a cannabis plant using silver thiosulphate (STS). The pair of Indian researchers rather used ethepon and an ethylene agonist (silver nitrate and AVG) to revert males to females. (4) Within a year, their research was used by David Watson to breed a cannabis plant with itself by converting half of a female into a male.

The result is formally known as a homozygote, or informally referred to as selfing according to a study by Etienne Petrus Maria de Meijer, a Ph.d. in agricultural sciences once employed under Watson. (5) Aside from producing feminized seeds, selfing was a new way to propagate genetically stable cannabis similar to cloning.

But Watson bred a consistent and medicinally viable phenotype in the 1970s. This means that Skunk #1 was bred before the STS method existed for cannabis. An allegedly exhaustive process of selecting and choosing a limited few plants from hundreds of traditional clones rather led to the development of Original Skunk #1.

Linnan Pan, who lists David Watson of Hortapharm as a principal (5), explains how Watson’s genetics were instrumental in GW’s deals with Big Pharma in their thesis.

Traditional clones to clinically stable cannabis

Skunk #1 and its clones were so consistent that GW Pharmaceuticals was able to turn it into a clinical cannabis medicine known as Sativex. Of course, though, even the Skunk used by GW in the late 90s expressed a much different profile than the Original Skunk mother from the 70s.

Still, clones of Skunk genetics were consistent enough to strike a controversial deal with Bayer for the distribution of Sativex to Canada. (6) Meanwhile, years down the road and the FDA still refuses to consider cannabis a medicine due to chemical variability.

Synthetic THC was simply the drug agencies’ preferred choice, turning down plant medicines. In a cruel comparison, an anesthetic known as Ketelaar is comprised of a random mix of two unique ketamine molecules with opposing effects. (7) Essentially, racemic ketamine is completely inconsistent but still an approved anesthetic, which contradicts cannabis’s fate as a medicine in the hands of federal regulators.

Original Haze. Genetics and photo by AG Seed Co.

A haze of genetics clone to clone

True, cannabis can become a haze of genetics, susceptible to change as it’s cloned and copied. A prime example is an inconsistent cultivar known as Haze, allegedly created in Santa Cruz in 1969 by Skunkman’s eventual neighbours, R. And J., The Haze Brothers. Original Haze is based on Columbian genetics. Although, it has been said that Afghan or OG Kush genetics blended into today’s cultivars can cause genetic inconsistencies, as well.

Before the 80s, Indica and Sativa were not so mysterious since the landrace origins of each strain were easy to track. This was because seedbanks were in their infancy and a limited number of individuals were crossbreeding various landraces. Essentially, genetics were far less mixed before things blew up from a narrow lineage. Landrace was previously used to describe cannabis. That changed after the days of Skunk and the Super Sativa Seed Club. Cannabis has been sold as individual strains ever since.

Regardless of Haze and the recent research by Guelph University, consistency is possible using highly specific cultivars. Although, it doesn’t help that cannabis genetics became entirely transient across the globe a few decades after Original Skunk and the first few seedbanks. Chemical diversity indeed unlocks more medicinal potential. Counterintuitively, that has also made it despairingly difficult to prove cannabis is medicine to agencies like the FDA and DEA.

Essentially, marketing is another major flaw degrading the viability of plant genetics and therapeutics. Of course, is that not peanuts compared to a century of bureaucratic nonsense vested on a medicinal resource by political and pharmaceutical fat cats?

Sources

  1. Watts, S., McElroy, M., Migicovsky, Z. et al. Cannabis labelling is associated with genetic variation in terpene synthase genes. Nat. Plants 7, 1330–1334 (2021).
  2. Adamek, Kristian & Jones, A. & Torkamaneh, Davoud. (2021). Accumulation of somatic mutations leads to genetic mosaicism in cannabis. The Plant Genome. e20169. 10.1002/tpg2.20169.
  3. States General. Mr Apostolou. Consideration of: the bill amending the Opium Act to make a distinction between Opium Act drugs when providing rules for prescribing Opium Act drugs on prescription (25737). Parliamentary Monitor. NL.
  4. Mohan Ram, H. Y., & Sett, R. (1982). Induction of fertile male flowers in genetically female Cannabis sativa plants by silver nitrate and silver thiosulphate anionic complex. TAG. Theoretical and applied genetics. Theoretische und angewandte Genetik62(4), 369–375. | 3b. H.Y. Mohan Ram, Rina Sett, Modification of Growth and Sex Expression in Cannabis sativa by Aminoethoxyvinylglycine and Ethephon, Zeitschrift Pflanzenphysiologie, Volume 105, Issue 2, 1982, Pages 165-172, ISSN 0044-328X, | 3c. H.Y. Mohan Ram, Rina Sett, Reversal of Ethephon-Induced Feminization in Male Plants of Cannabis sativa by Ethylene Antagonists, Zeitschrift Pflanzenphysiologie, Volume 107, Issue 1, 1982, Pages 85-89, ISSN 0044-328X. 
  5. de Meijer, E. P., Bagatta, M., Carboni, A., Crucitti, P., Moliterni, V. M., Ranalli, P., & Mandolino, G. (2003). The inheritance of chemical phenotype in Cannabis sativa L. Genetics163(1), 335–346.
  6. Pan, Linnan. 2007. The Feasibility Study of Sativex in China. Thesis. University of Twente.
  7. Paul, R., Schaaff, N., Padberg, F., Möller, H. J., & Frodl, T. (2009). Comparison of racemic ketamine and S-ketamine in treatment-resistant major depression: report of two cases. The world journal of biological psychiatry : the official journal of the World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry10(3), 241–244. https://doi.org/10.1080/15622970701714370
  8. de Meijer. 1994. Diversity in Cannabis. Wageningen Agricultural University

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