Cannabis-producing drugs has long been outlawed, and therefore the interest of scientists. That is changing. Science is investigating how suitable substances can be obtained from it without the need to grow plants. 

Cannabis has been used for millennia not only as a drug but also as a medicine. Modern medicine returns to it. In many countries, medical cannabis use has already been legalized. Pharmaceutical companies are testing cannabis substances, collectively referred to as cannabinoids. 

They pay great attention to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the primary molecule responsible for the narcotic effects of cannabis. However, cannabidiol (abbreviated CBD), which is not a narcotic, is not of interest either.

For example, a balanced mixture of pure THC and CBD has recently been shown to relieve patients of muscle cramps associated with certain neurodegenerative diseases. Pure CBD, in turn, suppresses seizures in some mental illnesses. This is different from “crude” THC-containing marijuana, the consumption of which increases the risk of such seizures.

Cannabis is the source of many dozens of exciting molecules in this plant only in trace amounts and whose effect on the human body is known very little. The lack of information on cannabis and cannabinoids is partly due to bans on growing varieties with a higher drug content.

Success in gene transfer

But even here, there is a noticeable turnaround. It was significantly helped by reading the complete hereditary information of three types of cannabis. In addition to marijuana cannabis with a high THC content, the researchers read the genome of the Finola variety, intended primarily for the production of oilseeds and DNA of the USO 31 variety, which contains few cannabinoids and is grown for textile fibers. 

Growing cannabis for THC and other cannabinoids is inefficient. In the plant, these substances occur preferentially in fine hairs or trichomes growing on the surface of leaves and flowers.

The vast majority of plant matter contains minimal THC and related molecules. However, hemp is the only known plant that produces THC, so its cultivation is widespread worldwide. Regarding the volume of illegal cannabis production, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime acknowledges that “the extent and trends in cannabis cultivation and marijuana and hashish production are difficult to estimate.” Cannabis cultivation has long been illegal. 

Many local varieties were destroyed in the fight against drugs. Illegal growers have focused primarily on plants producing high levels of THC and then vegetatively propagated.

Cannabis grown in different parts of the world is largely genetically identical today, and plants can be considered clones. These are why scientists are trying to get cannabinoids for treatment without the need to grow cannabis. 

A team led by Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley recently reported in the scientific journal Nature the success of transferring the genes needed to synthesize cannabinoids from cannabis to yeast. Yeast grown in bioreactors then produce not only THC and CBD, but also other interesting substances.

Yeast can process molecules that do not have cannabis as a raw material and turn them into new types of cannabinoids that no terrestrial plant can produce. 

Researchers hope that at least some of these substances will be used in the treatment of serious diseases. Other research teams have successfully transferred the genes for the “production line” for cannabinoids to the hereditary information of bacteria or algae.

Biotechnological methods of cannabinoid production promise, among other things, a sharp reduction in producer prices. While a kilo of pure THC isolated from cannabis sells for more than five thousand dollars, the price of THC and other cannabinoids produced by yeast should fall below one thousand dollars per kilo.

Suppression of appetite

Scientists did not betray even cannabis. Many teams try to ensure that cannabinoids are not formed only in trichomes but are produced in bulk by the whole plant. Genetically modified cannabis has enzymes that reduce the toxicity of cannabinoids to patients while maintaining all the positive effects. 

Other genetic modifications turn cannabinoids into cannabis so that oils do not have to be used to dissolve them and ordinary water is enough. Such cannabinoids can be easily added to beverages and other foods. Because they are tasteless and odorless, consumers should not be particularly bothered.

Cannabis growers have previously tried to breed varieties with an enormously increased content of cannabinoids occurring in traditional types only in trace amounts. It was always a long-distance run with an extremely uncertain outcome. 

Genetic engineering methods can relatively easily achieve, for example, high production of tetrahydrocannabivarin in cannabis, which is known to suppress appetite and would find application in people struggling with obesity. Food and drinks with this cannabinoid would be rich and one would eat and drink less.

Other genetically modified lines of cannabis have been used to block genes necessary for THC synthesis. 

These plants then produce large amounts of CBD. By blocking another gene, the researchers obtained cannabis, in which the production of cannabinoids in the cannabigerol molecule ends. It protects the plant’s cells from being damaged by a number of adverse external influences. Pharmacists have high hopes for the treatment of various inflammatory diseases in this substance.

Until recently, the neglected research of cannabinoids turned into the Klondike engulfed in a “gold rush”. Courts are already settling the first patent disputes for cannabis and cannabinoids. 

The key is how much the patent is new. Because until recently, the production of cannabis was outlawed and the news was kept secret, it is often difficult for the courts to decide what is a revolutionary innovation and what is a “worn-out vest” pulled into the light of day from deep illegality.