For years, cannabis cultivation has been more art than science. Breeders and legacy growers developed varieties and produced crops without the tools or experience of professional biochemists and genetics experts.
But with commercial legalization jumping from one state to the next, several companies have joined the race to fine-tune the cannabis genome and bring 21st century techniques into the evolving space. Dewey Scientific is among these relative newcomers — a company with academic chops rather than decades of hands-on experience specifically in cannabis cultivation. The company’s three co-founders — CEO Jordan Zager, chief science officer Mark Lange and director of research Paul Mihalyov — all have doctorates in plant sciences.
“Over the last decade, the cost of sequencing the plant genome has dropped tremendously,” Zager says, “so it’s allowed for a lot of advancements in how we can selectively breed, based on genetic information, not just what it looks like or what it’s producing.”
The company, which now employs about a dozen people, moved into its Pullman, Washington facility in November 2018 and works with clients in the hemp and marijuana spaces with the goal of producing more consistent and higher-yielding cannabis crops that are tailored for their region’s climate.
Marijuana Venture: What does starting a “cannabis genomics” company entail?
Jordan Zager: A lot of farmers don’t necessarily have scientific expertise, and we’re dealing with a plant that has been ignored for decades from a scientific standpoint, so we’re trying to catch the industry up to other plant-based industries.
There are other cannabis genomics companies out there, but most of them are just starting to look at the surface level of the genome. Our RNA-based analysis is much deeper. It gives you a snapshot of gene expression, as opposed to just gene presence, which is what DNA sequencing does. RNA sequencing tells you what genes are there and how strongly they are turned on at a given point in time.
Paul Mihalyov: One thing we’re able to do is flash-freeze a cannabis flower and isolate the live trichome cells, extract the RNA and sequence it. We’re basically able to look at gene regulation in the cell types that are producing cannabinoids and terpenoids.
MV: What have you learned so far in your studies of cannabis? In what areas are you making progress?
Zager: Mostly our progress has been a lot of fundamental research. We’ve been doing a lot of cellular biology techniques and we’ve been working with some clients and partners in the Yakima Valley (Washington), we’ve got some clients in the Willamette Valley (Oregon) and a couple companies in Colorado. We’ve been working with these clients who are inclined to turn to science and helping them take advantage of the data they can generate from their farms.
Mihalyov: One of the most interesting things about some of the RNA work we do, is that we’re able to figure out when some of the expression patterns are coming out in the growing cycle. For example, for hemp farmers, it’s very important to figure out when they should be harvesting — when CBD production is the highest and the THC production is the lowest.
One way of doing that is running your samples on an HPLC (high-pressure liquid chromatography) and figuring out which metabolites are present. But if you want to get ahead of the game, you need to figure out the best time to harvest before these compounds are being synthesized.
Zager: And we can actually make predictions as to what terpenes will be present. With terpene production, there are a handful of genes responsible, but you can have very tiny mutations. For example, you can have limonene, but if you make one single mutation at the right location, that limonene becomes linalool, so rather than having a citrus-smelling variety, now you have a lavender-smelling variety.
We’re using our platform to help clients make informed breeding decisions.
We’re helping clients look directly at the trichomes through growth and development. It can give them insights into when they should be harvesting to avoid a hot hemp test and so they can make informed breeding decisions, so down the road, they can design the flavor and aroma of their varieties.
MV: How does the current taxonomy of strains line up with what you’re seeing on the plant science side?
Zager: A lot of these strains are unique from a genetic standpoint. A lot of it is due to the clandestine nature of cannabis over the last half century. You’ve had very small groups of breeders and farmers, oftentimes in basements or deep in the woods, creating their own gene pool and creating their own genetic drift. It has led to a tremendous amount of genetic diversity. You could have farmers who were 20 miles away, yet their gene pools never crossed.
Now, as things are opening up, it’s led to thousands of strains, which is not common in traditional agriculture. Really there are about 20 varieties of apples that are marketed. As the (cannabis) market develops and as consumers figure out what they actually want, I think things will move more toward the varietal route that we see with other plant crops.
Mihalyov: We’re not dealing with a commodity crop like corn or soy, where the goal is just to make as much of it as you can. We’re dealing with a horticultural crop, where the consumer is interested in the different varieties. So there are a lot of products that have their own niche in the market.
MV: People often talk about “stable genetics.” Can you talk more about that and where the industry sits in terms of fine-tuning a stable genetic pool?
Mihalyov: Cannabis suffers from pretty severe inbreeding depression to the point where if you inbreed it far enough, it will lose its fertility. That creates problems when trying to develop inbred lines, which are required for hybrid seed production. One of the big pushes right now is to figure out if we can inbreed without losing fertility.
MV: Do you think seeds or cloning will ever become the dominant method of propagation?
Zager: In hemp, I would have to say it’s going the way of a commodity/ag crop. With a 300% increase in acreage this year, to maintain any type of real growth, seeds are the way to go.
On the marijuana side, it ties back into the subject of genetic stability, but I think consumers are generally frustrated with the lack of repeatable experiences. You can buy a strain in Seattle and it made you feel great, and then you buy what you thought was the same strain in Portland, and it’s very different.
Mihalyov: Consistency is the reason people are doing nothing but cloning right now for marijuana. You absolutely need to, to get that uniformity. And that’s quite frankly why seeds are not particularly common in marijuana.
MV: What are your goals as you look at the rest of this year and into 2020?
Mihalyov: When it comes to our goals, there are two sides of our company. One is to investigate potentially disruptive technology. The other side that we’re interested in is using classic breeding methods and quantitative genetics to generate stable, incremental yield gains over time, to help reduce volatility in the industry. Without necessarily having to resort to complicated biotechnology, there is already enough genetic variation available to select for varieties that will adapt well to the environment you’re growing in.
Zager: We’re about to embark upon a pretty aggressive breeding program. Especially in the hemp space, this year was plagued by poor marketing of seeds. People were getting seeds that were supposed to be 100% female; it turns out they were closer to 50-50 and people lost their whole crop.
What we’re really after is producing genetically stable, hybrid seeds with one of our partners in Central Washington.
And on the marijuana side, we’re interested in working with producers on characterizing what they have at a level that no one else is really doing right now. There are a lot of producers in the marijuana space, and margins are getting thinner and thinner every year. They need to find ways to reduce the cost of THC production. By making informed and strategic breeding decisions, we can ultimately help reduce the cost of inputs to produce a gram of THC to alleviate the shrinking margins marijuana producers are currently faced with.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.