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In a first step toward engineering a drug-free Cannabis plant for hemp
fiber and oil, University of Minnesota researchers have identified genes
producing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in
marijuana. Studying the genes could also lead to new and better drugs
for pain, nausea and other conditions.
The finding is published in the September issue of the Journal of
Experimental Botany. Lead author is David Marks, a professor of
plant biology in the College of Biological Sciences.
The study revealed that the genes are active in tiny hairs covering
the flowers of Cannabis plants. In marijuana, the hairs accumulate high
amounts of THC, whereas in hemp the hairs have little. Hemp and
marijuana are difficult to distinguish apart from differences in THC.
With the genes identified, finding a way to silence them—and thus
produce a drug-free plant — comes a step closer to reality. Another
desirable step is to make drug-free plants visually recognizable. Since
the hairs can be seen with a magnifying glass, this could be
accomplished by engineering a hairless Cannabis plant.
The researchers are currently using the methods of the latest study
to identify genes that lead to hair growth in hopes of silencing them.
"We are beginning to understand which genes control hair growth in
other plants, and the resources created in our study will allow us to
look for similar genes in Cannabis sativa," said Marks.
"Cannabis genetics can contribute to better agriculture, medicine,
and drug enforcement," said George Weiblen, an associate professor of
plant biology and a co-author of the study.
As with Dobermans and Dachshunds, marijuana and hemp are different
breeds of the same species (Cannabis sativa), but marijuana
contains much more THC than hemp, which is a source of industrial fiber
and nutritious oil.
Hemp was raised for its fiber — which is similar to cotton but more
durable — in the United States until legislation outlawed all Cannabis
plants because they contain THC. Today, marijuana contains as much as 25
percent THC, whereas hemp plants contain less than 0.3 percent.
Hemp was once a popular crop in the upper Midwest because it
tolerates a cool climate and marginal soils that won't support other
crops but, after drug legislation, hemp fiber was replaced by plastic
and other alternatives. Recent popular demand for hemp products has led
some states to consider the economic and environmental benefits of hemp.
North Dakota legislation aims to reintroduce it as a crop, and
Minnesota is considering similar legislation. At the same time,
California and other states permit the medicinal use of marijuana.
"I can't think of a plant so regarded as a menace by some and a
miracle by others," says Weiblen, who is one of the few researchers in
the United States permitted to study Cannabis genetics. In 2006, Weiblen
and colleagues developed a DNA "fingerprinting" technique capable of
distinguishing among Cannabis plants in criminal investigations.
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