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Evolutionary biologist Nolan Kane’s CU Boulder lab is working to construct the genome of the understudied and politically charged cannabis plant. (photo courtesy Nolan Kane)

A Map Into Uncharted Territory

By Sophie Goodman

There’s a little bit of an Indiana Jones streak in Nolan Kane. But instead of searching for lost artifacts in remote corners of the world, Kane and his research team at the Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative are constructing the genomic map of the ever mysterious, understudied and politically charged cannabis plant. The implications of this groundbreaking evolutionary, ecological and gene-sequencing work are vast and will do no less than revolutionize the marijuana industry in terms of plant breeding, trait selection and myriad medical applications.

Kane, 39, an expert in sunflower evolutionary biology, arrived in CU Boulder in fall 2013 from a postdoctoral position at the University of British Columbia. The timing was perfect. Colorado residents had voted in November 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana and industrial hemp-growing operations, and the legal cloud that had shrouded cannabis research for so long was slowly lifting. It was the challenge of “building the basic science knowledge of cannabis from the ground up” and applying modern sequencing techniques to the unstudied organism that most excited Kane, the CU administration and Dr. Daniela Vergara, an evolutionary biologist pursuing postdoctoral work in genomics in Kane’s lab. Though a scattered 60,000-piece outline of the genome already existed, no one had yet attempted to sequence the 800-million–nucleotide (A’s, T’s, G’s and C’s) Cannabis genome in any useful way.

To learn more about the Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative, visit www.cannabisgenomics.org. Additionally, visit www.cannabisgenomics.org/cannadata to see how you can contribute to Nolan Kane’s ongoing research.

“I’ve dealt with some intricate genetics in my career. The sunflower genome is about four times as big [as the cannabis genome], and its repetitive construction is a lot more complicated,” Kane explains, “but cannabis has come with a whole new set of complications.” Despite the challenges of working through legal gray areas and a lack of state grant funding, Kane has embraced the opportunity to study the fraught organism.  For example, Kane had hypothesized that there would be limited genetic variation in Colorado cannabis, because people had to bring it in illegally for so long, and because Colorado is so far from Eurasia, the plant’s natural growing habitat. What his lab has found, in fact, is that cannabis genetics in Colorado—both bred and feral—are wildly varied. It’s complicated their research and has been a surprising find.

Research Goals

The Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative was established to determine the biology of the plant, and where it came from and how it grows. It addresses four specific research goals: 1. Create an ultra-high-density genetic map; 2. understand the relationships of different lineages and how different traits found in plants that naturally grow in different geographies map onto genetic diversity (are indica and sativa actually separate lineages in the genus?); 3. study contemporary hybrid species to identify history and relationships across species; and 4. identify morphological variation—leaf shape—among lineages in the genus.

Cannibis photo by Mageon / Shutterstock.com
Cannibis photo by Mageon / Shutterstock.com

The applications of the CGRI research and genome map for breeding, trait selection and medical study are endless and are thus eagerly awaited by industry professionals. But when asked about initial findings, Kane smirked and shook his head, since they must be verified and cross-referenced with other research before they can be definitely reported. He did hint that a theory about the evolution of separate sex chromosomes in the plant seems to be panning out.

He Likes Lichens

Kane makes the perfect cannabis researcher because CGRI for him isn’t about the celebrity of the plant, but rather the opportunity to add to the scientific conversation about plant evolution and explore the mechanisms that make cannabis what it is. “The research questions presented by CGRI are relatively basic questions that are asked across plant-based research,” Kane says. “I know when reporters call that they’re most interested in CGRI, and I understand why. But my excitement about understudied plants extends beyond cannabis to my other research, particularly lichens.”

Using the same modern genetic tools to ask similar questions about lichens, Kane is partly seeking to determine the nature of the relationship between the algal, fungal and bacterial species that make up the organism. “There’s no real industry side of things with lichen research, but we’re asking the same sort of basic science questions about the evolution of the genome itself and genetics and key traits.”

As Kane sees it, his research subjects as a group—cannabis, sunflowers and lichens—tap into what defines his relationship with nature and his contribution to the state he now calls home. “Dispensaries are now ubiquitous,” he says. “Go for a hike and you’ll see lichens everywhere and sunflowers growing in all kinds of interesting environments. I view all of them as an iconic part of Colorado.”