Dr. Daniela Vergara: Exploring the Cannabis Genome

Dr. Daniela Vergara is an evolutionary biologist and co-founder of the Cannabis Genomics Research Initiative (CGRI), and has been working on exploring the cannabis genome since 2013. CGRI’s main goals are to create an ultra-high density genetic map of Cannabis (which does not yet exist due to the federal government’s restrictions on scientific research), to understand the history of the evolution of cannabis and piece together the hybrid origins of its current varieties, and to identify morphologic differences between existing cannabis strains.

We recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Vergara about her work and what the CGRI has discovered so far. Read the full interview below!


 

Ganjapreneur: What does the CGRI do, and what are your long-term goals?

Dr. Vergara: At CGRI we explore the Cannabis genome. The genome is the whole collection of genetic material from an organism, all of the DNA. Studying the whole genome gives a more comprehensive understanding of the organism than previous approaches where only few genes were studied.

We are currently determining specific genomic regions related to the production of important compounds such as cannabinoids and terpenoids, and to associate the genome to the physical characteristics of each plant. We would like to establish the differences between strains in these genomic regions and to resolve why the various strains produce different compounds.

In terms of the full scope of the task at hand, how far along would you say that you are? How long will it take to achieve the level of knowledge about the Cannabis genome that you are working toward?

All my life! Research is a never-ending task. There are always new things to discover, new techniques, new crosses, new diseases to battle, etc etc etc.

How did you first get involved with the CGRI, and why did you decide to focus your scientific career on cannabis?

I am the co-founder of CGRI along with professor Nolan Kane. When I started working with Nolan I wanted to learn genomics and bioinformatics, something that he is an expert on. I was initially going to work on sunflowers, but because of the possibilities of working on Cannabis in Colorado, I decided to work on Cannabis genomics instead. I also run a non-profit organization, the Agricultural Genomics Foundation, that aims — in educating the public about our scientific findings — to support breeders and growers in their efforts and CGRI in our research.

How does the Agricultural Genomics Foundation work to educate the public?

With public talks, blog posts, and through our website.

Just how limited is the current “canonized” scientific knowledge about cannabis compared to other plants?

The current knowledge in cannabis is extremely poor, for all other important crops (ie. soy, wheat, rice, corn) we have advanced genomic tools; tools that we are developing for Cannabis at CGRI and AGF. We don’t even have a complete understanding about the taxonomy of the Cannabis genus: is it composed of just one species as currently classified, or are there multiple species?

Interesting! So, when we think of “sativa,” “indica,” and “ruderalis,” we might be talking about different species? Or might the classification be even more specific?

We have found that those traditional groupings might not be accurate. The definition of a species is a tricky one, and there are several definitions. According to the biological definition, if you can intercross and produce fertile offspring you are the same species. Our studies have found that there is a lot of variation within Cannabis (including hemp), so much variation as there is between many species (ie. Humans and chimps) but in Cannabis these individuals can be intercrossed. There are definitely discrete groupings, but we don’t know whether or not these are species or not.

What has been the biggest obstacle preventing the necessary research from being done? Is the road now clear to move forward with scientific studies, or are there still restrictive limitations on what you can do?

Definitely the legality of the plant. The questions that we are answering have been answered for any other crop. There are still some limitations, but we are making progress with the resources we have.

What kind of impact could a comprehensive scientific understanding of cannabis have on its use as medicine?

The impact of a comprehensive scientific understanding of Cannabis in medicine is going to be huge. With our results, we will be able to breed specific strains for particular illnesses. Our results will allow understanding about the active genomic regions in strains currently used for epilepsy treatment (for example), and whether it is the strain, the person, or an interaction between both that provides the relief.

In many aspects of the cannabis industry, business owners report experiencing “Canna-Bias” from mainstream businesses who refuse to work with them. Is there a similar stigma in the field of genomics, or the hard sciences in general?

Not at all! I’ve felt the complete opposite in the sciences. They have been extremely supportive, helpful, and encouraging. They see the importance and use of our research and how helpful it will be for humanity.

Is cannabis seen as an opportunity for scientists do original research and make exciting discoveries now that the restrictions are beginning to be removed?

Yeah, totally. It’s a very interesting plant, it has a peculiar reproductive strategy that is not commonly seen (hermaphrodites, males and females); it is extremely versatile and can be used in food, constructing material, medicine, fiber, personal hygiene products etc.; it grows fast, it requires less water than many other crops, it’s a gold mine!

Would you recommend the field of cannabis genomics as a field of focus to young scientists who are looking for a career in cannabis?

Once it’s legalized, yes. Right now, no. It’s hard to get funding and there are many restrictions. I would recommend to study plant biology, or genomics in other organisms and the knowledge acquired can then be applied to Cannabis.


 

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Dr. Vergara: we look forward to hearing what new discoveries CGRI makes in the future! To learn more about Dr. Vergara and her work, visit the CGRI website.

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