Throughout history, Cannabis sativa has been exploited by humanity. Hemp seed oil is rich in omega 6, an essential fatty acid, and its fibre is used in the production of fabrics. Marijuana is known for its mind-altering properties and has been used medicinally for over 2700 years. The changes to the genome that led to drug-producing plants is a mystery of cannabis evolution, but one that has now been solved, thanks to an article published in BioMed Central's open access journal Genome Biology.
A team of researchers led by Drs Jon Page and Tim Hughes from Canada sequenced DNA from the potent Purple Kush (PK) marijuana strain, which is widely used for medicinal purposes. The PK genome and transcriptome (genes that are switched on) were then compared to those of 'Finola' hemp, and scanned for differences which might explain why marijuana produces tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), the active ingredient of cannabis, while hemp strains lack THCA but contain the non-psychoactive cannabinoid, cannabidiolic acid (CBDA).
The transcriptome held the clues to solving this genomic puzzle. Dr Page explained, "The transcriptome analysis showed that the THCA synthase gene, an essential enzyme in THCA production, is turned on in marijuana, but switched off in hemp." Dr Hughes continued, "Detailed analysis of the two genomes suggests that domestication, cultivation, and breeding of marijuana strains has caused the loss of the enzyme (CBDA synthase) which would otherwise compete for the metabolites used as starting material in THCA production."
Dr Page added: "Plants continue to be a major source of medicines, both as herbal drugs and as pharmaceutical compounds. Although more than twenty plant genomes have been published, ranging from major food crops such as rice and corn, to laboratory models like Arabidopsis, this is the first genome of a medicinal plant. Decoding the cannabis genome will help answer basic questions about the biology of Cannabis sativa and further the development of its myriad applications including strains for pharmaceutical production, and hemp plants with improved productivity and fatty acid profiles."
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