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.



Phenotype Mega-Hunt
PHOTO | Humboldt Seed Company
Dr.Dabber SWITCH Clear Edition

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.”

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


10 Couch-Lock Cannabis Strains to Help You Stay Home



PHOTO | Sunset Sherbert

COVID-19 has changed the world as we knew it. For the foreseeable future, we all have to do our bit and stay home to try and flatten the curve and prevent the virus from spreading further. But it’s not all bad news. Try to think of this time to stay home and reset. Why not start that project you’ve been putting of, or earn a new language? Maybe rearrange all the furniture in your house and alphabetize your record collection. Then, once that’s finished, sink into your couch and enjoy one of these iconic couch-lock cannabis strains while you binge on Tiger King.


Named after its geographic origin, Afghani grows in the Hindu mountains, where cannabis was first discovered over 1000 years ago. Afghani delivers a deeply relaxing,mood-boosting high, perfect if you have issues with insomnia, chronic pain and stress disorders.

Buy seeds from sensiseeds.com

Girl Scout Cookies (GSC)

A potent mix of an OG Kush x Durban Poison x Cherry Kush mother backcrossed with a prime-looking OG Kush father created Girl Scout Cookies. The winner of multiple Cannabis Cups and packing a powerful 28% THC, GSC is possibly one of the best Northern California strains of all time.

Buy seeds from homegrowncannabisco.com

Granddaddy Purple

Delivering a THC level between 17-27%, Granddaddy Purple is not a strain to take lightly. If you’re looking for a mental and body high that will feel like you are floating euphorically, as well as being great for easing pain and relaxing muscles, this distinctively fruity tasting strain is for you.

Buy seeds from seedking.com


Perhaps one of the most notorious cultivars out there, the legend of G-13 is that it is an escapee from a breeding experiment funded by the U.S. government. With 22-24% THC level potential, G-13 provides a couch-locking feeling of euphoria.

Buy seeds from pacificseedbank.com

Northern Lights

Multiple award wins have solidified Northern Lights as another classic indica strain.  THC levels range from 16-26% and promise a mellow and pacifying high.

Buy seeds from seedsman.com

OG Kush

World-renown for its potency and distinct flavour, the legendary OG Kush needs to introduction. Tokers will enjoy equally intense body and head highs from around 20% THC levels.

Buy seeds from royalqueenseeds.com


Superglue brings calming relaxation to the mind and body while leaving you functional and energetic enough for social activities or a productive afternoon.

Buy seeds from cannaconnection.com

Sunset Sherbert

Mario Guzman aka Mr. Sherbinski grows some of the finest cannabis you’ll ever smoke. Stress and tension will melt away as a full-body high creeps, delivering a deep physical relaxation.

Buy seeds from homegrowncannabisco.com

Super Skunk

Super Skunk delivers a notoriously powerful body high thanks to a THC content of 20% or higher. Consumers can expect a whole-body relaxation that kicks stress to the curb and will have you in full couch-lock mode.

Buy seeds from homegrowncannabisco.com

Triple Cheese

Known to consistently reach 22% THC or higher, Triple Cheese by world-renowned breeder Barney’s Farm offers Cheese lovers a very enjoyable high and a unique terpene profile.

Buy seeds from barneysfarm.com

Continue Reading


Taking the Temperature of Northern California’s Heritage Cannabis

Long story short, it’s rocky out there for many of the Emerald Triangle’s heritage cannabis businesses — but they want to be doing it legally.



Heritage Cannabis
PHOTO | Aran

It’s been over two years since Proposition 64 was passed in California. Profit projections, law enforcement, the black market, and climate change have kept the cannabis business in the Golden State everything but predictable. People continue to be imprisoned for crimes connected to cannabis while legal businesses are turning a profit. Legal weed has even backfired on the people who made it legal, as big corporate investors coming in change their business landscape.

Yet it remains a general consensus that legalization is all for the better. No one wants to go to jail anymore for growing or selling weed, there’s absolutely no denying the many medical benefits of the plant and hemp is poised to present itself as the green alternative to the overconsumption of fossil fuel products. Cannabis is a disruptor to big pharma, big alcohol and big tobacco, which in turn has the “bigs” attempting to either sabotage and/or establish themselves in the marketplace.

Long story short, it’s rocky out there for many running legitimate legal cannabis businesses but they want to be doing it.

Northern California took a big hit — and it wasn’t just profit loss. While policymakers tried to model California’s legal market after Colorado, they fell short because the cultivators in California don’t operate the same way. The green rush flooded prime growing communities with people who were so green to cannabis, it doesn’t seem right to even call them that. But many heritage cannabis farmers in these communities wanted to break the cycle of fear instilled over the years and moved forward with legalization regardless, for all the right reasons.

Chiah Rodriques and her husband James Beatty run River Txai Farms and Arcanna Flowers, the brand and sustainable cannabis farm and nursery in Mendocino County. Rodriques and Beatty grew up on a large back-to-land intentional community and are second-generation Mendo cannabis farmers.

Chiah Rodriques and James Beatty. PHOTO | Trina Calderón

Committed to legal growing since the 9.31 ordinance enacted in 2008, they founded Mendocino Generations, a collective of sustainable cannabis farms in Mendocino County who strive to work together as a brand, farm landrace genetics, and promote “better living through cannabis.”

But keeping Mendo’s exceptional cannabis tradition alive throughout legalization has presented challenges. Visiting the area during this season’s harvest, I took the temperature with Rodriques.

“Basically over-regulation is like the ankle-biter,” shared Rodriques. “It’s the Achilles heel of the small farmer because in order to compete in this market you have to cultivate enough cannabis to compete with farms in other counties with larger cultivation allowances. Ultimately, they’re our competition but on a shelf with jars of cannabis, they’re not, because you wouldn’t want to put that cannabis in a pretty jar on a shelf — most of that product is going to oil and biomass. You have different levels of competition. You have competition for pricing because their cannabis is still going into the market, which makes prices fluctuate. Then you have the shelf space for all the brands, and lots of these brands thought that they could do a small brand and survive with that, but I don’t think that that’s really going to play out as we thought. Running a small brand takes a lot of overhead.

PHOTO | Trina Calderón

“Basically it’s hard to know if your brand from one small farm can have enough cannabis if your brand goes big,” she continued. “You may need to start reaching out and getting cannabis for your brand from other cultivators. In Mendocino County, we have a disadvantage because we can only cultivate 10,000 sq. ft., but there is a push for there to be a ballot to change it to one acre. That has mixed reviews from the farmers too, basically half the farmers hate that idea and half the farmers are into it. I think that’s mostly because they don’t have the space or the water or the infrastructure to handle that much.”

Rodriques believes that a contributor to the disconnect in policy is that no one consulted with Mendo’s heritage cannabis farmers when creating regulations.

“Farmers were not invited to the table until much of the ordinance was in place and there was a big rush to push things through as is and make changes later — so the county was ready for Prop 64 to go into effect. It was a race to the finish line. They didn’t think we had valid concerns, or maybe felt like the hippies needed to get organized. Admittedly so, we were all over the place with requests and needs that I’m sure it was overwhelming to lawmakers,” Rodriques said.

There was no real insight into what is actually practical or what is actually happening on farms in the area. Most of the regulations were written around indoor cultivation and don’t play out for sun-grown farms in Mendo.

A more community-oriented step towards action is the Mendocino Appellations Project, a group designed to set up a process for defining cannabis appellations, which are geographic areas in which small farmers can classify their crop with that name. A valiant effort, it plays into marketing and promotion, though the true cannabis aficionado will appreciate the information the same way a wine connoisseur likes to know where exactly a pinot noir grape is grown.

PHOTO | Trina Calderón

Small farming is no easy task in itself and going legal has created hardships for many.

“I think last year sucked so bad most people were struggling pretty hard, and in terms of pricing, it was bad last year,” said Rodriques. “Crops this year were a mixed bag. We definitely had a lot of people who had frost, and we had mold. There’s a lot of powdery mildew this year because the rain didn’t come. It’s like this weird humid that makes no sense because it’s really been dry. There’s been a lot of theft. There have been a lot of fires, so there’s smoke damage material.

“[As for] the market, who knows what it’s actually going to look like in the next couple months. Right now, its sort of a mixture, a lot of people are saying they’re going to back out. A lot of people are scared, but then there’s a lot of people that are moving forward with all these other ideas and plans. They’re doing okay, so it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen with the ultimate heritage cultivators, like my parents’ generation. Most of them aren’t doing it anymore because they were on the brink of retirement anyway so who wants to go through all this bullshit, right?”

Heritage Cannabis

Chiah Rodriques. PHOTO | Trina Calderón

Recently, the county has realized they’re not getting as much tax money as they hoped and the Board of Supervisors are planning to give the small farmers what’s called a Cannabis Cultivation Amnesty Transition Pathway. The plan would give more years for legacy growers to transition into county compliance, which may help attract more applications. The vote was unanimous to create the Amnesty, which Rodriques sees as the county throwing them a bone. Considering 1588 total people applied to participate in legal cannabis in the county, and only 232 were approved and issued permits, and it appears not many more would apply since the regulations are so problematic. Building and planning issues like commercial zoning and ADA rules for bathrooms and parking lots are costing farms money they don’t have. Especially when the reality is it’s usually not probable to have anyone in a wheelchair working on a farm. Workarounds are likely because people are trying to be compliant, but the same rules are putting people in uncomfortable positions.

“Comparatively to Humboldt, I would say that Mendo is struggling a little bit harder and that’s more because the bureaucracy hasn’t allowed people to get into the system,” Rodriques concluded.

Continue Reading


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.



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.

Continue Reading


Join The Cannabis Aficionado Community!
Join the Cannabis Aficionado community and receive all of the most relevant news geared towards our sophisticated enthusiast community.

Copyright © Cannabis Aficionado