The GenKit sex test kit from Steep Hill Labs. The kit allows cultivators to take specimens and send them to the lab for sex determination.
Photo by Elizabeth Peace

A new world of cannabis breeding is now at your fingertips in the form of technology.

Traditionally, one’s fingertips helped to guide a breeding program, to some degree, in that growers and breeders utilized the tip of thumb and forefinger to rub the stems of the vegetating plant for superior odor, combined with vigor and structural qualities. That’s all one could do to determine the best male or female to breed, besides the obvious quality and quantity of the finished product.

Until now, most growers and breeders followed similar procedures:

  • Sprouted seeds.
  • Vegetated plants until four to six sets of branches formed.
  • Took two clones from each plant to ensure one survived.
  • Kept vegetating original plants, while keeping corresponding clones on a 12-hour-on and 12-hour-off lighting schedule to encourage sex determination.
  • Growers eliminated male plants; breeders selected preferred male plants for breeding.
  • Female plant selection was dictated by traits of the original plant.
  • Selected female plants were re-cloned and placed into production, or selected male and female plants were induced to flower to produce seed.

The characteristics that have determined selected plants were typically as follows:

  1. Vigor
  2. Growth rate
  3. Branching structure or internodal length
  4. Olfactory (odor) signs from rubbing stems
  5. Quality and quantity of finished product.
Steep Hill Labs also has a PacBio DNA Sequencer (shown here), which was used to produce the first long read male cannabis DNA sequence.
Photo by Elizabeth Peace

All these characteristics have been defined based primarily on observation in non-clinical situations. (Clinicals would typically entail multiple trials in a variety of situations and environments.) I recently viewed an online video of a breeder whacking a large flowering male plant with a large stick in front of a fan in a greenhouse full of female plants. While not my chosen method of pollination, to each his own. Regardless of the method, this is how we got to where we are now.

Recently, I have begun to rethink the fundamentals of future breeding, spurred on by the fact that two friends and I have a very large seed collection of cultivars that are either lost, old-world landraces or modern hybrids that have never been released to the public, and thus, are unique to the breeder, exclusive and patentable.

As an industry, we must consider modern breeding practices based predominately on factual data and science combined with present-day technology.

When I study cultivars, I first ask myself, “What are the desirable traits of a male plant selected for breeding?” While taking into account that some of today’s available technology and analysis methods are in their respective infancies, I realize that my saved cultivars have not been subject to any modern-day analysis. To go forward with both growing and breeding them would be a do-over, if you will, in that previously, a male or female plant could be discarded based primarily on observation, not on analysis and factual, accumulated data.

That said, any number of plants that produce a novel or superior level of a certain compound, be it cannabinoid or terpene, could potentially have slipped through the cracks, to be forever lost because they did not meet the required standard based on observation alone.

Today, the technology available to grower and breeder is light years ahead of what was available not 20 years ago.

Technology has made it possible for a grower or breeder to guide their program entirely in-house, or as effortlessly as possible, with combined factual data.

The financial incentive to invent and develop on-the-spot analysis and data-recording equipment is huge.

I suspect the following companies and technologies will rapidly revolutionize the cannabis industry when it comes to both cultivation practices and breeding programs:

  • Phylos Bioscience provides both genetic mapping (allowing a grower or breeder to log the genetic lineage of a plant) and plant-sex-determination services (with its Plant Sex Test). Neither of these services causes undue stress by inducing flowering to determine sex and reverting back to the vegetative lighting regiment.
  • Steep Hill Labs Inc. “provides chemical analysis [and] biological testing using biotechnology methods, and performs R&D on both for the cannabis plant,” according to Dr. Reggie Gaudino, vice president for scientific operations and director of intellectual property at Steep Hill. “Cannabis testing analysis at Steep Hill allows up to 17 cannabinoids and as many as 43 terpenes to be quantified and reported, in addition to providing reports on microbiological, pesticide contaminants and residual solvents in processed cannabis products. Steep Hill testing services also allow a grower to determine whether or not myclobutanil, insecticides or other systemic fungicides have been applied to clones prior to cultivation. [The lab] also provides genetic testing; sex determination (GenKit), as well as mapping and marker identification to aid in the breeding of unique cultivars, using marker-assisted breeding. GenKit allows growers to take specimens and determine sex and additional markers, such as CBD dominance, when the sample is sent to the lab. Steep Hill also has trademarked a rapid potency analysis system, called QuantaCann2, which is used to analyze cannabinoid contents in the field,” Gaudino explains.
  • CanGenX Biotech offers a multitude of services from consulting to establishing a complete tissue culture micro-propagation system. Tissue culture allows a grower or breeder to not only replicate plants, but also to keep large amounts and large varieties of plants in a very small area. It also offers molecular services, such as a mother plant diagnostic testing for viruses and sex determination, as well as the development and patenting of strains through its licensed lab at ProgenyBio Agricultural Services.
  • CW Analytical Laboratories has a portable cannabis analyzer, LightLab, from Orange Photonics—a producer of portable cannabinoid analyzers. LightLab allows cultivators to evaluate the potency of flowers and extracts from the field.

Both the QuantaCann2 and the Orange Photonics’ analyzers allow a grower or breeder to analyze specimens, day-to-day or hour-to-hour, to determine chemical contents and, to some degree, peak ripeness, so to speak. I suspect future devices will enable on-the-fly testing of both cannabinoids and terpenes of live plants without picking the specimen off the plant, similar to the way that a Brix meter measures fruits’ sugar content.

CW Analytics offers an Orange Photonics’ portable cannabis analyzer, LightLab, which provides accurate potency data in less than 10 minutes, according to the companies.
Photo courtesy CW Analytics

These technological advances will revolutionize cannabis growing and breeding, along with other existing technology such as cellular replication, which is a biological process of producing two identical replicas of DNA from one original DNA molecule. It’s important to note this is a process of genetic replication, not genetic modification (GMO); it is simply another form of germplasm replication that can be done en masse, by the millions. It allows for genetic specimen preservation, like the tissue cultures and seeds that are maintained for replication, breeding or research.

This begs the question, what is the logical method of genetic selection and breeding, given today’s technology, and the vast array of cannabinoids and terpenes available within the thousands of cultivars and cultigens of today’s cannabis gene pool? And how do we keep an eye on the future and genetic preservation?

Here is a logical breeding method I would suggest:

  1. Sprout seed.
  2. Vegetate plants until leaf formation begins.
  3. Take a specimen to determine sex with kit and send to the lab, both to determine its sex and to map its DNA.
  4. Take tissue cultures from all plants.
  5. Growers eliminate males, breeders keep all males, based on lab results.
  6. Take clones from all plants before inducing flowering, taking multiples of everything to ensure preservation of all samples.
  7. All males and females (if bred/grown from the original seed) are grown to completion of the flowering cycle. Analysis regarding cannabinoid and terpene content of both male and female plants should be conducted at least weekly, with all resulting data logged. When the plants are harvested, all possible data also should be logged, such as wet weight of the plant, dry weight of the plant, how much is usable cannabis versus how much is biomass in the form of fan leaf, stems and stalks, vigor, structure, overall health, disease resistance, etc.
  8. Select preferential males and females based not on observation alone, but by a compilation of all available factual data. Use this factual data combined with observation to determine both the female you grow and the male you breed with, while all original versions of everything are safely stored in tissue cultures.
  9. Clone chosen female and place into production, or induce chosen male and female to flower and produce seed.
  10. The resulting plants or seeds can then be subjected to trials in a multitude of situations and environments.

All these technologies combined with future, refined apparatuses will open up incredible possibilities. Hypothetically, unique cultivars that produce elevated levels of various cannabinoids or terpenes will be discovered and bred. Perhaps a certain male cultivar or cultigen will be found that exhibits very unusual characteristics or traits. And perhaps we would have the possibility to breed for specific characteristics or accentuate a given genotype or its phenotypes.

Cumulative data will open up another world of possibilities—to breed specific cannabinoid- or terpene-rich plants much more accurately.

Kenneth Morrow has been writing cannabis-related articles and books for more than 20 years. He owns Trichome Technologies, a cannabis R&D company. Morrow also is an award-winning grower and breeder. Has made contributions to many of today’s extraction methodologies and holds multiple patents. He consults on all cannabis-related subjects. Find him on Facebook at: Trichome Technologies or Instagram: TrichomeTechnologies.