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Discovering Cannabis Unicorns in a Phenotype Mega-Hunt

Nathaniel Pennington from Humboldt Seed Company explains his phenotype mega-hunt — the search for the best and brightest of the cannabis genome.

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Phenotype Mega-Hunt
PHOTO | Humboldt Seed Company
Rocket Seeds

The science of cannabis genetics has existed in a hazy realm of illegality and prohibition-derived stigma for nearly a century. Relegated by the first anti-pot laws in the United States that appeared in 1913 in states such as Indiana, Maine, and Wyoming, cannabis cultivators seeking connoisseur-grade examples of the art have traditionally worked in cloistered isolation, mired in the ignorance of pseudo-science and urban legend.

This generations-old underground culture of ultra-discreet operation has resulted in a nascent legal industry that suffers a gross lack of hard research and peer-reviewed science. Unfortunately, most cannabis breeders operate in a desperate state of self-reliance, employing guesswork and questionable genetic material.

Newly legal adult use markets across North America—including California, Canada, Massachusetts, and Nevada—are finally allowing researchers to seriously investigate cannabis genetics and breeding. This, in turn, is helping support the natural industry-wide desire to introduce novel products to market that address specific consumer preferences or patient medical needs.

Playing Catch Up

One example of the new generation of entrepreneurial researchers attempting to push the boundaries of cannabis genetics is Nathaniel Pennington, CEO and founder of Humboldt Seed Company (HSC).

As a biologist and geneticist focused on the development of premium cannabis genetics, Pennington has for years been obsessed with creating the best possible seeds and clones to support both commercial cultivators and self-sustaining gardeners.

Over the past almost two decades, the pioneering company he founded in 2001 has gathered a large volume of data regarding the science of superior cannabis genetics, with a focus on varieties that offer rare terpene and cannabinoid profiles. The company’s Blueberry Muffin strain, a decade in the making and increasingly popular in West Coast dispensaries, was described by Leafly as the most accurately named strain on the market.

Blueberry Muffin PHOTO | Humboldt Seed Company

Despite these successes, Pennington employs a data-driven management style steeped in reality. “We have so much catch up work to do in cannabis breeding. In Humboldt, we’re starting over in a proper way,” he said during an exclusive interview with Cannabis Aficionado from his cannabis farm-come-genetics laboratory in Humboldt County, California.

Not satisfied with the state of cannabis genetics in the Golden State (the world’s sixth largest economy and one of the newest entrants to the legal adult use cannabis market), Pennington began investigating ways to bring together the brightest minds in cannabis cultivation and genetics research. His goal? To leverage his experience in genome annotation and DNA markers affecting plant behavior to push forward the science of commercial ganja genetics.

The Phenotype Mega-Hunt

Headquartered in the heart of Northern California’s fabled Emerald Triangle, Pennington’s response to California’s new cannabis legalization — and the threats and opportunities that it presents for small and mid-sized farmers in the region — has been to hunt and breed the best genetics in use for local farms and nurseries in the licensed marketplace.

He manifested his vision in the form of a phenotype mega-hunt, a type of biological scavenger hunt in which he and a team of subject matter experts, including scientists, cultivators, and breeders, launched a maniacally challenging and detailed search for the best and the brightest of the cannabis genome.

Thus was born the first phenotype mega-hunt in the heart of Humboldt County, widely recognized as the epicenter of outdoor cannabis cultivation in the United States (and home to an estimated 20,000 cannabis farms). This ambitious project began with 40,000 select cultivars, all unique seeds that were grown in a variety of environments for the special project, including open fields, greenhouses (some employing leading-edge light deprivation), and indoor gardens.

“Choosing the best out of 30 is different than choosing the best from 40,000,” said Pennington. He and his team narrowed their candidate field to 10,000 ideal females, from which they selected only the highest quality 0.5 percent of flowering plants. That involved he and his team carefully examining and disqualifying 200 plants for each they labeled a finalist. The group then systematically discarded 90 percent of the 500 to derive 50 top-shelf “winners.”

Phenotypic Variation

Cannabis breeders speak a language all their own. Their obsession with phenotypes, terpene profiles, and liquid chromatography testing knows no bounds. However, to appreciate the significance of a project such as Pennington’s phenotype mega-hunt, one need not possess a Ph.D. in molecular genetics.

Phenotypic variation is a topic near and dear to botanical geneticists and breeders seeking to create heartier and more robust plants of any type, including cannabis. Breeders and farmers naturally seek genetics in the form of seeds and clone plants that yield more cannabis resin or that feature larger volumes of particular molecules, such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

However, modern legal cannabis breeders and craft cultivators desire many genetic characteristics other than large volumes of the infamously psychoactive molecule THC. These traits include resilience to disease, tolerance for harsh weather, and ample production of specific constituent chemicals, including non-psychoactive CBD and the more than 200 terpenes and 113 cannabinoids within the cannabis genome.

Tropical Paradise. PHOTO | Humboldt Seed Company

Data-Driven Genetics Research

Pennington emphasized the serious nature of the genetics research behind the phenotype mega-hunt and his personal mission to preserve and build upon the generations of cannabis breeding expertise that exists in the Emerald Triangle.

“Folks don’t come to us because we post cool videos of sports cars to YouTube or are mentioned by the latest rapper,” said Pennington. “Our customers seek us because we provide genetics that truly perform. Last year, we took the California clone community by storm with our Blueberry Muffin that we crossed in 2008, named in 2010, and have been stabilizing and fine-tuning ever since.”

Pennington emphasized the need for cultivators and the entire industry to recognize the relatively primitive state of the science of cannabis genetics knowledge in an effort to continually push the research envelope and improve breeding techniques.

HSC decided not to restrict access to the selected phenotypes that resulted from the 2018 phenotype mega-hunt. “If this project created 50 premium clone strains in 2018, why would we not do that again in 2019 and do an even better job?” said Pennington.

In the world of cannabis genetics, his ambitious vision aligns with the reality of science: The knowledge gained from the distinct population crosses of his first phenotype mega-hunt will serve to expedite future efforts. “Knowing that it’s a make or break situation for many of the state’s small farms, we felt a moral obligation not to restrict access to the best cannabis strains,” Pennington continued.

Phenotype Mega-Hunt and the Quest for Rare Strains

According to Pennington, the holy grail of cannabis breeding is the discovery and exploitation of rare genetic traits in an effort to develop new and stable cultivars. The overall goal is to develop strains capable of delivering to consumers novel medical efficacy, wellness benefits, or lifestyle enhancement.

When he began considering the state of the cannabis genome, Pennington knew that he needed to start fresh with a traditional breeding strategy to discover this plant’s true capabilities, outside the limits of prohibition and its disorganized underground markets. “We bring distinct, distant populations together in breeding to examine their ‘phenotypic array.’ Essentially, DNA reproduction loves new DNA! It loves DNA it hasn’t seen before…or for millennia,” he said.

Industrious organizations such as Humboldt Seed Company are discovering and combining rare cannabis genetics in the hope of producing traits and benefits that haven’t been seen. “As much as we’ll find things that are appealing, we’ll find things that are very unappealing,” said Pennington.

The pioneering cannabis genetics researcher completed our interview by offering some sage advice to those who might consider similar projects: “This isn’t for the weak-at-heart farmer. It’s a tremendous amount of work and diligence involving massive data collection and analysis. But it’s totally necessary to target and craft the most beneficial cultivars for the dual benefits of commercial viability and medicinal efficacy.”

When queried about the future of the Northern California’s legal adult use cannabis cultivation industry, Pennington assumed a pensive, yet optimistic, stance. “To survive, I think we must be as innovative as possible. Innovation is an area where the companies with the deep pockets don’t necessarily have an advantage.”

Cannabis

Why Independent Third-Party Cannabis Testing Is Important

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Cannabis Testing
PHOTO | HQUALITY

During cultivation, the cannabis plant acts like a sponge. It absorbs everything it is exposed to, from pesticides, nutrients, and heavy metals present in the soil. For these reasons, it is essential that reputable and reliable third-party labs carry out cannabis testing to assure safety and efficacy of the product.

Lab testing of cannabis products is an essential part of the regulated market’s supply chain. It detects offensive chemicals or contaminants that can lead to adverse health effects when consumed, while additionally providing cultivators and retailers with efficacious cannabinoid and terpene profiles of legal cannabis products. 

In Canada’s regulated market, batch release quality control testing is required for potency and product safety, so it is necessary to measure substances like pesticides, mycotoxins, bacteria, and molds. Unfortunately, reports on potency and contaminants can vary from lab to lab, while recalls of contaminated products threaten consumer trust of legal products. 

Sigma Analytical Services is a full-service pesticide, elemental, molecular, genetic, and pathogen analysis laboratory for cannabis, hemp, and cannabis-derived products. It delivers reliable science for cannabis products to the cannabis industry and cannabis consumers.

Cannabis Aficionado spoke with Ashton Abrahams, co-founder and COO of Sigma Analytical Services, to learn more about the importance of cannabis testing and Sigma’s strict processes.

Cannabis Aficionado: Tell me about your entrepreneurial journey to cannabis.

I’m a serial entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in starting and growing several successful ventures. In 2017, when Canada was in the process of legalizing cannabis, my partner and I saw an opportunity to focus on a different side of the new cannabis industry — ancillary testing and quality reassurance requirements. We knew there would be new products in the market, and they would all require testing. So, we started a testing lab that focused on cannabis and cannabis products, and this is how Sigma started.

What sets Sigma apart from other testing labs?

We want to ensure products available in this new market are efficacious and safe, and ensure the levels of both remain consistent. Sigma is the only GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) certified, cannabis-focused lab in Canada and the only cannabis-focused lab with cross-continental operations. We developed and validated our methods back in 2018 and 2019, so we are the frontrunner in Cannabis 2.0 product testing and are set up to test a comprehensive list of cannabis products — including flower, edibles, beverages, and topicals. 

Sigma also has validated methods for quantifying and testing 16 cannabinoids and 43 terpenes — one of the highest in the market — and our analytical and microbiology tests are compliant with Health Canada, EU, and US Pharmacopeia.

Additionally, Sigma was awarded the Best Cannabis Lab/Testing Facility in Canada at the Grow Up 2019 awards.

Inside Sigma Analytical Services’ state-of-the-art lab.

What need does Sigma fill in the global cannabis industry?

Sigma brings reliable science that is already available in food and pharma to the cannabis industry, its products, and consumers.

Cannabis, food, and pharma share certain quality requirements. However, there is a big difference: in terms of quality assurance, food and pharma have decades of testing experience, while cannabis is a new industry, and the science is still being developed. 

What kind of samples do you test?

We have developed and validated testing methods for many different types of cannabis products, from traditional dried flower and oils to Cannabis 2.0 products , such as concentrates, beverages, edibles, and topicals. From a testing standpoint, each and every one of these products is different and can have a different matrix. In turn, we develop a testing  method for each one.

What should customers be looking for to see reassurance that a product’s been tested? 

Make sure their products are purchased through legal channels. It’s the regulatory bodies’ responsibility to make sure the products launched in the market are not just tested, but tested specifically by qualified labs.

Moldy cannabis is a problem in legal markets and there are numerous reports of Health Canada product recalls after customers discovered moldy flower. Can you talk to us about how you test for these pathogens?

From day one, instead of using the traditional culture-based method, Sigma has tested for mould and all microbial contamination using a newer technology called qPCR (quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction). When we first started it in late 2018, nobody was familiar with it in the cannabis industry, so we had to take time to explain to our clients that it was a better, more reliable, and faster process. In the last six months, however, we have seen a huge shift in attitude. Not only have the cannabis producers accepted qPCR, but more cannabis labs are starting to use the technology to test for microbial contaminations.

Cannabis Testing
Moldy cannabis. PHOTO | LabRoots

What are some of the most exciting developments in cannabis testing?

Using qPCR for microbial contamination is very new for the cannabis industry. We’re happy and excited about it because we see the benefits and we hope the whole cannabis industry embraces it. 

Secondly, the challenges of formulating, developing, and testing new products. The developments in the past six months have been really promising.

Thirdly, discovering more about the cannabis plant and what ends up in cannabis products is really an exciting development. As we progress, we are sure to learn more about the effects of cannabinoids and terpenes.

What’s your pinnacle vision of cannabis testing?

There are two sides to it. There is a regulatory side, and there is the testing side. On the regulatory side, it’s about what needs to be tested, and how it needs to be tested. 

A very important part of the quality assurance initiative for cannabis is ensuring the testing sample is representative of that batch. There are different factors in place. Is that batch homogeneous or not? Are the characteristics consistent or not? Cannabis is a plant. It’s an agricultural product. It’s not something that’s coming out of a machine, so we cannot expect all of the plants to have exactly the same characteristics. I believe one key is to limit the size of the batch. Other jurisdictions have clearly defined regulations. For example, in California, it clearly states that each batch cannot be larger than fifty pounds. In the Canadian regulations, there is no definition at all.

Secondly, labs need to get more serious. Some labs are testing cannabis products with outdated instruments or unvalidated methods, meaning their results cannot be truly accurate or reliable. Cannabis labs cannot use a 15-year-old second-hand instrument and expect to get the same results as pharmaceutical labs that use the best, most advanced instruments. Some people might think that testing cannabis products is not as important as pharmaceutical products, but it is just as important.

Cannabis has a very complex matrix which requires complex testing methods. Not all labs have good enough or validated methods. However, I’m optimistic that it’s a matter of years, maybe between five to ten, for cannabis testing to get there.

How is Sigma helping to foster the growth of a responsible and safe legal cannabis industry?

I think everyone active in the cannabis industry has a responsibility to make sure they are doing a good job and providing safe and efficacious products to the consumer. That’s because, if the consumer is not happy with what they’re getting from us, it will translate into unhappiness with the whole legalized framework.

Finally, what’s next for Sigma?

We are going through some expansion at our headquarters in Toronto and we’re about to acquire a lab in British Columbia, which will be our second lab in Canada. Additionally, we have a joint venture in Colombia and are setting up the first GMP certified cannabis lab in South America.

We are also becoming more involved with helping develop formulations for new products, and testing them, especially for the producers that follow GMP requirements either in pursuit of higher quality or for international cannabis markets.

We also recently received our GMP clearance from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (“TGA”). The approval designates Sigma as an approved testing laboratory for Canadian companies to introduce their products into the Australian cannabis market.

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Cannabis

Pink Lemonade: This Sparkling Strain Is Both Pretty & Potent

The frosted pink buds of Pink Lemonade might dazzle the beholder with glittering layer of golden trichomes, but this gorgeous flower isn’t all looks.

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Pink Lemonade
PHOTO | Anna Wilcox

Dusted with a glittering layer of golden trichomes, the Pink Lemonade strain is endowed with a mystical appearance that embodies everything curious, attractive, and intriguing about cannabis flowers. Tightly bound calyxes dazzle with a bouquet of pink, violet, and sage coloration.

Cracking open one of these flowers emits a comfortable herbal aroma. A burst of crispness teases the nose, somewhat akin to the tart fizz in a carbonated cherry drink. This dessert-like aroma nicely compliments a definite happy hour high. Calm, relaxed, and downright chill, Pink Lemonade is a true afternoon delight.

The Pink Lemonade High

Put on some chill beats and pour yourself a nice drink. This plant is smooth, easy, and well-rounded. If inhaling Pink Lemonade feels like the first meaningful breath you’ve taken all day, you might be pleasantly surprised as a subtle relaxation works its way along the limbs and through the muscles.

There’s no doubt about it–this plant is a go-to strain for mellowing out. While often described as thoughtful and creative, the herb is better suited to leisure activities than it is serious concentration.

While solo consumers may enjoy putting on some Netflix after a little of this plant, it’s peaceful and contented nature is ideal for social gatherings. Spending time with friends may always be fun, but it’s easy to sit back enjoy a pleasant conversation after a few tastes of Pink Lemonade.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that cannabis affects everyone differently. The herb tends to be a mood enhancer rather than an instant remedy for happiness. If you are in an easygoing and relaxed environment, expect even more mellow after enjoying a little bud. If you’ve been having a bad day, strains like Pink Lemonade may provide relief by softening negative emotions and making them more tolerable.

Pink Lemonade Strain Background

Today’s cannabis market is truly a craft one. To say that the lack of federal recognition of the herb is problematic is an understatement. However, one benefit of state-by-state legalization is the development of truly local, expertly crafted products.

Pink Lemonade is a superb example of such a flower. There are many renditions of Pink Lemonade out there, yet the particular version pictured is a cross between two contemporary hybrids, Lemon Cheesecake and Huckleberry Soda.

Each parent strain is exceptional in its own right. Lemon Cheesecake is a sativa-dominant flower with a sour cream aroma and substantial THC production. Huckleberry Soda is a craft hybrid from Annunkanki Genetics, an intriguing cross between two hybrids, Black Cherry Soda and Huckleberry Hound.

Pink Lemonade Strain Benefits

As a craft flower, Pink Lemonade was arguably bred more for enjoyment than serious medical potential. It’s frosted pink buds dazzle the beholder, showcasing the fact that this plant is truly a treat. However, this gorgeous flower isn’t all looks.

The flower produces upwards of 25 percent THC. This means that the plant may be useful to those who benefit from high-THC therapies. Those interested in making a full-extract oil, hash, or other forms of concentrates may also enjoy experimenting with this sugary herb.

This plant is not too energizing nor is it overly sedative. However, those hoping for a little extra help falling asleep at night may find the flower helpful. The relaxed flower may also be beneficial for anxious individuals in search of a social lubricant.

However, the high-THC content in Pink Lemonade can inspire the opposite effect in some people. Bottom line: if you are prone to social anxiety or often respond poorly to THC, this potent flower is likely not the best choice.

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Cannabis

Everything You Need to Know If You’re New to Dabbing

Dabbing is an ideal ingestion method best for those that have a high tolerance to cannabis or patients that need a quick, controlled dose of cannabis.

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Dabbing
PHOTO roxxyphotos

Dabbing is an ideal ingestion method best for those that have a high tolerance to cannabis or for medical users that need a quick, concentrated and controlled dose of cannabis. However, it can be confusing, even for long-time pot smokers. In fact, unless you’ve done it, seen it, or read up on it, dabbing can be a total mystery.

Dabbing is a relatively new way to consume cannabis and it is has become very popular in recent years despite rumors that it is dangerous.  It is a highly concentrated experience, with THC at levels much more elevated than most regular flower you would encounter in a joint.  For patients, dabbing can be a very effective way to dose because the effects hit the user very quickly and can typically be measured more easily. For those with a high tolerance for cannabis, dabbing can be a way of feeling the effects of pot with more potency.

Before you can get into dabbing, you need to know a little about cannabis concentrates and extracts. Shatter, budder, wax, crumble, pull and snap, and hash oil are a few of the most popular types of cannabis concentrates and extracts. Extracts and concentrates are named so because they are products of a process where THC and other cannabinoids are extracted from the flower. Sometimes, during the extraction process, a solvent (like alcohol or butane) can be used and other times a solvent is not used. Either way, the final product is a smaller, stickier package that packs a powerful punch.

The Dabbing Process

Keep in mind that nails and domes can get incredibly hot. Like, RED hot, literally. Do not underestimate the heat that can occur — be cautious to prevent any burns.

First, you will need something to dab. We have heard the recommendation more than once to keep away from alcohol-based extracts when dabbing. Consult your budtender about this one, or just skip alcohol based-extracts — your call. There are a lot of concentrates and extracts to choose from, enjoy the hunt for your perfect pick.

Next you need something to dab out of. You can purchase a dab rig or just convert an existing glass water pipe with glass dab attachments. You are also going to need a titanium, ceramic, quartz or electronic nail that fits the glass dab attachment you are using. A typical nail is going to require the use of a dome in order to trap the vapor before it dissipates into the air. A dome can be as simple as a glass piece that fits over the reservoir where the extract or concentrate is vaporizing.

Get your dabber ready. A dabber is a tool that is ceramic, metal, glass, that is used to place the dab, or concentrate/extract, on the super-hot nail.

Lastly, unless you are using an electronic nail or e-mail, you will need a mini torch. Some less patient dabbers will use a full-on, propane-fueled torch in order to more quickly heat their nails — experiment at your own risk. In case the dab is a little overwhelming for you and your body, the safest place for you to be is sitting down to avoid any falls.

Turn on your e-nail OR use your torch to heat your nail until it is red-hot. Allow it cool for at least 10 seconds (for titanium) and up to 45 seconds if you are using ceramic or quartz nail.

Once cooled, use your dabber to place your concentrated dab on the nail. Place the dome over the nail as you inhale. Then, exhale. Victory!

If you weren’t already sitting down, you probably will be now!

Take these words of advice to heart — start small. If you haven’t tried dabbing at all before, don’t make your very first dab a large one. You won’t regret taking a small dab, but you might regret taking one that is too big. Always ask your budtender any questions you have about your purchase and if the product you are buying is the best thing you can buy for dabbing, vaporizing, smoking, etc.

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