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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.”

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THC: This Cannabinoid Is the Reason You Get High From Weed

THC may be best known as a euphoriant that delivers a psychoactive effect, it also offers a multitude of medicinal benefits.

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THC
Mortgage Lifter PHOTO | Courtesy Humboldt Seed Company

Of the 113 cannabinoids that have been discovered in the cannabis herb, none is more infamous than tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Responsible for most of the psychoactivity and euphoria of cannabis, this cannabinoid does more than merely give suburban soccer moms a modicum of stress relief and college students ravenous munchies.

With all due respect to the molecules caffeine and ethanol, probably no other molecule in the history of humanity has been as misunderstood, stigmatized, or politicized as THC. From the reefer madness era of the late 1930s to the stereotype-laden films of Cheech and Chong in the 1970s to more recent movies like Pineapple Express (based on the name of a popular strain of cannabis), the truth about THC and its efficacy for humans often evades laypeople who consume content from only national media outlets.

The medicinal benefits of the molecule are numerous, ranging from relaxation and pain relief to appetite stimulation and sedation (great for insomniacs). Negative effects of this molecule include intense appetite stimulation (with predictable gastrointestinal consequences the following day), dry mouth, potential short-term memory impairment, paranoia and panic attacks (especially with sativa strains), and lethargy (typically in indica varieties).

The Details of THC

While THC may be best known as a euphoriant that delivers a psychoactive effect, it offers a multitude of medicinal benefits that far exceed the fabled “stoner” mannerisms of lethargy and forgetfulness. Despite its delivery of what is sometimes a potent euphoric effect (especially for new consumers), it is impossible to overdose on THC.

Assuming moderate and reasonable consumption levels, cannabis can serve as a positive lifestyle enhancement that delivers stress relief, mental wellness, improved energy levels, and even performance enhancement. Strains featuring relatively potent levels of THC include Blueberry, Ghost Train Haze, Master Kush, Trainwreck, and White Rhino.

Predicting the exact potency and efficacy of a particular strain of cannabis is difficult for a variety of reasons. For example, a theory called the Entourage Effect identifies how other cannabinoids and their aromatic cousins called terpenes can modify the effects of other cannabinoids and terpenes, including buffering or amplifying the effect or potency of THC.

One distinct characteristic of the molecule is tolerance building. While a subjective area of cannabis efficacy, tolerance building for daily consumers can be significant. To combat this problem, some indulge in a decades-long practice dubbed a tolerance break, during which they significantly decrease or cease consumption for between a few days and a week.

The Research on THC

A 2011 study conducted by cannabis research pioneer Dr. Ethan Russo entitled “Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-terpenoid Entourage Effects” and published in the British Journal of Pharmacology provides a critical overview of THC’s medical benefits.

Concluded Russo and his team, “THC is the most common phytocannabinoid in cannabis and…is a partial agonist at CB1 and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2),” pointing out the herb’s myriad medical applications, including “activities as a psychoactive agent, analgesic, muscle relaxant, and antispasmodic.”

Russo’s team concluded that THC also functions as a bronchodilator and neuroprotective antioxidant while featuring 20 times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin and twice that of hydrocortisone.

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Everything You Need to Know About Microdosing Weed

There are great reasons for microdosing weed including medical conditions that benefit from it, and a few different ways to achieving the perfect dose.

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Microdosing Weed
PHOTO | Gracie Malley

Microdosing is the latest craze in cannabis. It has been utilized for some time, both with cannabis and LSD, but only now is the mainstream getting hip to the low dose strategy. There are great reasons for microdosing weed including medical conditions that benefit from and improve because of it, and a few different ways to achieving that perfectly sensible dose.

Wait, First… What Is It?

Microdosing weed is when a person consumes very small amounts of cannabis in order to receive the benefits of whole plant medicine (THC, CBD, terpenes, etc) while experiencing very little to none of the “high.” It isn’t for those times when you want to get ripped and watch an entire season of Westworld and chow down, it is not going to produce that kind of experience. It is more or less a medical use technique that can be utilized day to day without affecting one’s overall state of mind. It is basically the opposite of a dab or trying to find the biggest pre-roll with the highest THC strain you can.

So Why Microdose?

As cannabis becomes more popular, and more people want to harness its power, the demand for less psychoactive pot rises. Not everyone likes to get the giggles, or the munchies, or the long trains of thought that tend to present themselves when a person gets stoned. Others do enjoy the laughing, eating and philosophizing but need something more manageable during their work day and family time.

Microdosing to the rescue. Now you can get just a little high, without any of the headiness or outward signs that you have been consuming anything at all.

Family reunion? Microdose.

Big meeting at work? Microdose.

Irritatingly long wait at the DMV? You guessed it – microdose.

More seriously, if you work a 9-5 and suffer from back pain from sitting at your desk all day long – you could be microdosing to alleviate those aches and pains without making it obvious that you are medicating with cannabis throughout the day.

Potential Medical Benefits

Unfortunately, because cannabis is a Schedule I drug, the federal government claims that it has no medical value and therefore has not been studied as much as it should be. Most scientific studies on that have been completed on cannabis consumption are animal based. While many of those animal studies can absolutely translate to apply to human beings, it is certainly not the same as results garnered from actual human studies.

There have been studies on the benefits of administering low doses of synthetic cannabis pharmaceuticals in humans. Those results are typically positive in regards to microdosing. However, like the animal studies, results from synthetic cannabis studies do not fully represent the results that could be gathered from studying real, naturally sourced marijuana.

With that said, there are incredible amounts data supplied by cannabis users, and a bevy of recorded favorable results, that go toward proving that marijuana is an effective way to treat a variety of medical conditions. Microdosing can help almost anything that using cannabis will – just in a much smaller and more controlled way. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), insomnia, glaucoma, nausea, wasting syndrome, and moderate pain are just a few of the conditions that can benefit from microdosing weed. However, medical issues like cancer and epilepsy, that are treated with large amounts or very concentrated forms of cannabis, are not necessarily best suited for treatment with microdosing.

Think of it like this… if you have achy muscles you can take an over the counter pain reliever twice a day for relief but if you have severe pain in your joints and muscles that requires a prescription painkiller, the over the counter medicine isn’t really going to make a dent. The same can apply for microdosing. If your condition can be treated throughout the day in small doses, microdosing could be a beneficial, natural way to treat the problem. If you only experience relief from consuming an entire joint or 100 mg edible, microdosing is likely not going to be the best way to alleviate the issue.

Start low and find your sweet spot.

Consumption Options for Microdosing Weed

Microdosing weed can be achieved a few ways.

An oil cartridge and vape pen is one of the easiest ways to consume small, controlled doses of cannabis. A vape pen is discreet, clean, and odorless. Many vape pens have an auto-shutoff after a few seconds, so doses can be regulated with ease.

Edibles are another great way to microdose. Infused food or candy manufacturers have caught on and started producing products in smaller doses in order to service the microdosing market. Edibles of yesteryear could only be found in 50 mg, 100 mg or higher dosages. Now, you can purchase a bag of candies infused with 2.5 mg, 5 mg or 10 mg.

You can also microdose with smoked cannabis, but it is more difficult to do so covertly. If keeping your use under wraps is important, smoking cannabis should be your last choice due to the lingering smell alone. However, a loaded one-hitter or chillum is an adequate way to limit the dose you consume while still benefiting from the plant’s medical properties.

Whether you vape, eat, or smoke cannabis to microdose is up to you. In many circumstances and for many medical conditions, microdosing can be a better option than an all-out cannabis consumption free for all — less fun, sure, but not everyone is after the same experience with weed. As cannabis becomes more widely accepted, so does the trend of microdosing. Give it a shot, see if the shoe fits!

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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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