In this podcast, Shango Los meets with Tyler Markwart, founder of Allele Seeds Research and Production Manager / Breeder at Monkey Grass Farms, a licensed Washington cannabis producer, to discuss the hot topic of genetically modified cannabis.
Tyler is a proponent of GMO cannabis and argues that there are many potential benefits that could come from making genetic modifications to strains. In addition to the possible applications, Tyler discusses some of the various methods that can be used and addresses the concerns that have been raised by consumers about GMO products.
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Shango Los: Hi there and welcome again to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host, Shango Los. The Ganjpreneur.com podcast gives us an opportunity to speak directly with entrepreneurs, growers, product developers and herbalists, all focused on making the most of cannabis normalization. As your host I do my best to bring you original cannabis industry ideas that will ignite our own entrepreneurial spark and give you actionable information to improve your business strategy and improve your health and the health of cannabis patients everywhere.
Today my guest is Tyler Markwart and we will be talking about genetically engineered cannabis strains. Tyler Markwart is founder of Allele Seeds Research, an American cannabis biotech company. He’s grown and bred cannabis in warehouses, homes, and outdoors for both the commercial and early medical markets for over 20 years. Tyler studied organic agriculture and philosophy at Washington State University and produced award-winning research while working in WSU’s molecular plant science laboratory. His techniques are often referred to in books for growers, the New York Times and other publications. He’s also a syndicated journalist and photographer with High Times Magazine, the Northwest Leaf, Ladybud and Culture Magazine. He’s here today because he’s an outspoken proponent of the genetic engineering of cannabis. Welcome, Tyler.
Tyler Markwart: Hi, Shango and thank you very much for having me on the show today.
Shango Los: Glad you can make it. I had doubts that I want to be really clear about what we mean about genetic engineering and GMO for today’s show. There’s a wide ranging abuse of the term when reading the internet. When we say genetic engineering during the show today we are not referring to simple selective breeding and hybridization that humans have been doing for over 10,000 years. We’re talking about specifically inserting a foreign gene into a cannabis plant to get specific results. Is that a pretty good working definition, Ty?
Tyler Markwart: Yeah, that’s pretty good. It depends on who you talk to in the world of genetics or outside of the world of genetics. You’ll get a different answer on what a GMO is and what genetic engineering is. At the base of what we’re looking at today, we’re going to talk about inserting foreign genes: that’s transgenics. Moving one gene from one species, whether it’s a plant or an animal, into another specifically transgenics. When we have other things like mutations from radiation or chemical mutations, those are not transgenic but they are also genetically modified organisms.
Shango Los: I only know of one example of this. I’m sure you know a lot, but I’m into aquariums. They took a gene from a jellyfish and put it in a Zebra Danio to make them fluorescent and glow in the dark or rather glow under a blacklight. That’s the only one I know of. Can you give me another example of bringing of a different plant or an animal and putting it into a different species for transgenics?
Tyler Markwart: Yeah. There’s a lot that’s being done in the laboratory. There isn’t a lot that’s being released out into the market per se for commercial use and whatnot so far. The idea is you could remove the cold resistant genes from a salmon and put it into a plant, allowing that plant to exhibit better growth conditions under freezing temperatures or near freezing temperatures. One of the biggest things that we’re looking at is basically the ability to enhance growing capabilities, making them more efficient.
Shango Los: What is the goal of all of this? I know people are upset about the idea of genetic engineering about their food and then we bring this to cannabis, which totally brings out a lot of the cannabis enthusiasts, but you are constantly hailing this as something that can be very good for cannabis. What’s the goal of all of this? What are you hoping to gain by having success through this?
Tyler Markwart: The main goal is research and knowledge and wisdom and all the information we can pull from understanding the plant pathways better. Genetics covers a wide variety of different things from plant pathology all the way down to how single individual cells work and their functions operate.
We can actually take a look and we can better our own knowledge of humans by understanding plant pathways because we share similar pathways in each other. When it comes to cannabis what we can do is we can actually target certain things such as developing medicines for people.
If there’s a certain profile of cannabinoids and terpenes that we know works really good for multiple sclerosis or for ALS or anything like that, we can then target certain genetics and we can tag them and say, “Okay, these certain genes, which basically is like a computer code, we can take those genes and we can test for through them every single time and say these plants have those sets of genes and they have a better a chance of having the outcome that we’re looking for in the end.”
There’s also something that goes hand in hand with that: just because you have the set of genes that produces that doesn’t particularly mean you’re going to produce that desired results and that desired results can change in the way a gene is enhanced or expresses itself. If you express yourself really loudly, people are going to hear you. If the plant genome expresses itself really loudly, you may see purple color in the flowers. You may smell grapes or smell bananas. It also touches on a bunch of other things too with genetic engineering. It hits really two main people when we want to talk about it: the growers and it also hits the end consumer at the same time. The growers looking to be profitable, that’s mainly their goal so that they can have another season to plant another round of crop and live and pay their bills like everybody else.
Some growers, obviously, have more intentions for the medical benefits than others so that’s obviously great, but in the long run everybody needs to be able pay their light bill if they want to grow indoors. The consumer, in the long run, is looking for a good quality product at a low cost that they can continue to get at a regular consistency.
When you combine all this together what we’re really looking for is sustainability and that’s what these genetic engineering is allowing us to do is actually to become more sustainable by using less nutrients, making plants more efficient, understanding how plants operate so once we get a better understanding of that genetic pathway, we can learn about how applying other natural chemicals like Insect Frass to the plant will help it reduce its infestation against powdery mildew and other things.
Shango Los: It sounds like a lot of different people could benefit from genetic engineering just depending on what’s the particular research we’re wanting to focus in on.
Tyler Markwart: Yeah. It really comes down to what’s the end result, what are you looking for in the end, because it’s the same thing in what we do with breeding practices. If you have two plants, let’s say Purple Kush and you have Super Silver Haze. If your end result is to have a hybrid of those two plants where they exhibit the high from the Super Silver Haze but the growth characteristics from the Purple Kush, you’re designing a plant at the end. You’re genetically engineering the outcome.
With selective breeding it’s taking much longer. When go into the laboratory and you use processes like double haploid engineering where you’re basically taking one half to genome and copying it, reduce six to nine generations of selective breeding into one generation of breeding. You can get products to the market faster, which in the case of people like MS patients, ALS patients who are degrading every single day in their disease, this helps them address that much quickly.
Shango Los: That’s where the rub is, right? The push back that people have to genetic engineering is because it does happen so much quicker. Traditional hybridization is done generation over generation so it evolves out more slowly and so you can do additional testing and you can see how the plant is reacting and the whole is just a slowed-down process. Whereas when you’re inserting something in the genome and only takes one generation, it happens fast. What can you tell us about testing for genetic engineered cannabis? What would that look like? The safeguards are what people are really concerned about and causing the push back.
Tyler Markwart: Yeah. I guess it really comes down to what are you concerned about in your cannabis as far as genetic engineering goes and a lot of it comes to mass hysteria. A lot of people who are against genetic engineering or against GMOs don’t really have a good handle on the technology. The reason being is it’s a really, really, really difficult subject to understand. I’ve been studying it for just a short period of time of maybe five to eight years and during that time period, I still don’t have an awesome grasp on what exactly is happening compared to people who’ve been studying it for 60 years.
As we go along and we start getting a better understanding, we start understanding … I mean, prior to me going to the Washington State University, I was strictly organic. I grew up on a conventional farm where my grandparents pesticides, they used roundup ready corn and they did all that. I, as a teenager, went through this strictly organic camp and was like, “No GMOs, blah, blah, blah, none of that. That’s all horrible,” and I progressed into going to the lab at WSU where I got a real education on what was happening and I was able to get a better understanding of the technology.
It really is difficult to have a discussion with people when they just continue to say, “Hey, GMOs are bad,” and it’s like we have to sit there and discuss what actually a GMO is and then we break out. It’s very difficult to get pass that when it’s a very difficult subject to understand.
Shango Los: That probably I can imagine maybe you’re a pariah for a lot of folks. We’re going to come back and Tyler’s going to tell us about moving away from only organic growing and towards genetic engineering hasn’t made him a pariah. We’ll be right back.
Welcome back to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host, Shango Los, and with us today is Tyler Markwart of Allele Seeds Research. We’re talking about genetic modifying cannabis. Before the break we were talking about your move from being strictly an organic cannabis farmer starting to get involved with research genetically engineered cannabis. Does this technology to do this already exist? If you would, explain specifically how one goes about inserting a foreign gene into the genome of a cannabis plant.
Tyler Markwart: Yeah. There’s not really that much genetic engineering happening right now with cannabis just because the fact that cannabis is still Schedule 1 substance in the United States. The research capabilities are pretty slim as far as being able to modify the plant when we can barely even just research it in general. There’s hurdles to overcome that. When we talk about genetically modifying plants in general, there’s a multitude of different ways doing it. New technologies are coming out all the time. One of the original technologies was using golden gun and what that was is basically taking small balls of gold and laying DNA on them and basically shooting them into the plant so that they would pierce through the cells and place the DNA into the individual cells.
This is a Hail Mary kind of technique where you’re basically just injecting it and you’re hoping it gets into the region that you want it to. Definitely not very direct.
There are new technologies out that are far more direct and we’re looking at one of the new technologies at, I think we discussed earlier today, was called the CRISPR technology where it can come in and edit DNA. That’s super new. Other ways are chemical induction through natural sources of modifying the genome through radiation.
When we talk about genetically engineering cannabis, we’ve been doing it out of the laboratory in the underground for a long time with what’s been called feminized seeds. Basically, the way to make feminized seeds would be two ways. You can do it naturally by stressing the plant out by either letting it grow past its normal flowering period where it’ll produce male flowers because the plant has the ability to this last chance pollinated self to survive in nature or you can use pill silver which is a chemical used made from silver that you apply on. That basically changes the genome to male flowers so you’re genetically modifying it that way. Also another way you can manipulate with light or mastication of the soil, there’s a multitude of ways doing it naturally.
It’s hard to talk about GMOs when you could do it naturally. People got offended by that. To touch on something earlier we talked about the organic and GMO thing, you have organic breeding and that’s how the organic standards come out. Then you have GM technologies, but at the same time you can grow GM technology plants using organic methods. There isn’t any law that says you can’t apply that bat guano to a cannabis plant that’s been genetically modified.
We can use those techniques together and that’s one of the things that I’ve been really promoting the most is finding the best of each. What technology can we take from biotech and GMO, what can we take from organic and how can we combine those to be the most successful in the fact that the producer can make an income and the consumer can get a product at an available cost that isn’t exorbitant?
Shango Los: That’s subtle difference between the growing method and how you create the strain, that right there provides such a kink to the debate. Almost nothing I read online even suggests that there’s a difference. Everybody’s talking about this big bucket of GMOs and referring to it as a one big thing, whereas what you’re suggesting is like, “Okay, let’s isolate the strain because we want to treat a particular disease or because we want it to use less water because we’re in Southern California or something.” Once you’d isolated the strain, you’re actually going to grow it in soil and without pesticides for the health of the plant itself.
Tyler Markwart: Yeah. It goes beyond even that. When we talk about pesticides and fungicides and stuff, when we talked about Washington State since we have recreational marijuana here, recreational marijuana there’s what’s called the PICOL list and that is the list of pesticides that’s been approved for cannabis production in Washington State. There’s over 200 chemicals that have been approved and this is basically based off of the organic agriculture.
A lot of these “chemicals” are organic. For instance, AzaMax is an organic chemical. In large doses AzaMax causes cancer in humans. There are detrimental effects to organic. If we think about the term organic, arsenic is organic. It’s an organic chemical. We have to be very careful in the terminology and how we use them and how we discuss that. And again, this is where the hysteria thing comes out. A lot of people are so fixated on Monsanto and so fixated on Roundup Ready that they literally group every single other technology with that. Every single other biotechnology or every other genetic modified organism instantaneously becomes evil because it has some association to Monsanto, Cargill, Syngenta, whatever company you want to get out there, or Roundup. We have to get a better understanding of what they do, then we can get a better grasp on how we can debate them.
Shango Los: You know, I’m one of those people who talks against genetically modified food and I’ve signed the petitions and I spread the message. It wasn’t until you and I met and I started thinking about genetic engineering from a more academic direction that I had to start re-thinking some of that, but in the end, I still don’t want to eat genetically modified food because of the unknown. It’s like, “Okay, if I eat this particular thing and it’s been genetically engineered, I don’t know how it’s going to interact with my body and it could do something bad.” You probably know the potential bad things that could happen more than anybody because you’re researching it. If we were talking worst case scenarios, if we were to start genetically modifying cannabis, what are things that could go wrong even if they’re unlikely and theoretical? What is the monster that people are afraid of that you’re saying isn’t going to happen?
Tyler Markwart: When you think about it, nature generally takes care of everything in its own sense and way. If people are concerned about outcrossings and outbreedings and stuff like that, if it’s a beneficial advantage for the plant to have that genetic coding, and that’s again when we think about what this is, it’s just a code. Your genes is like a computer code. It’s 010. Instead of zeros and ones, it’s C, G, T and A. It’s a coding and if we transport that code from one plant to another or we do something, it may be really beneficial and the plant may benefit from that.
We have to get a really good understanding of the technology in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it before anything else really advances. I really cannot press how much the importance of how these things are approved. When you look at the approval of a genetically modified organism, it goes through the same process an organically proved produce product would come through. The technology, for instance, BT, which is bacillus thuringiensis, is a soil-borne bacteria that the genetic code has been inserted into corn. That certain pest when they bite into the corn basically can’t reproduce and they die. The reason it was approved for agricultural use was because BT is used in organic agriculture.
What the USDA and the EPA went and did is they said, “If this chemical is approved for organic agriculture, then it must be safe for use in this technology also.” They did trial runs and they did a bunch of research on it and they found that that is the conclusion and that’s basically how they’ve continued to go through approving these technologies is saying, “If this technology already exists, then it should get a fast track approval.”
Shango Los: At the top of your answer though you said that nature has a way to suss out what’s needs and what’s safe, but when we’re doing a direct insertion into the genetic line, doesn’t that get rid of the natural barriers? Because the whole thing, the reason that nature takes care of itself is because it’s got generation after generation of slow hybridization, whereas what we’re talking about here is a quick fix. Nature doesn’t really have its chance to play its role as quality assurance.
Tyler Markwart: Unfortunately, nature also doesn’t keep a steady path in how things happen. Things abruptly happen through nature whether it’s a volcano coming through and destroying everything, a hurricane, a comet from outer space, dropping new types of material on earth. Things happen, things change and so we have to prepare for those changes. GM technologies allow us an extra tool in the shed to be prepared for those. If we were to make changes in a plant and to see that it has a beneficial outcome and, like I said before, if nature was to take care of it, we would see detrimental effects happen immediately and we’re not basically seeing that. The whole thing with the Monsanto and the Roundup Ready thing is people are saying, “It’s causing all these issues.” Before that, what do we have? We had a whole boatload of horrible other issues from conventional agriculture. As we use these technologies we’re going further and further forward to being able to make different changes in agriculture for the benefit.
Shango Los: Right on. We need to take another short break. We’ll be right back with Tyler Markwart.
Welcome back to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I’m your host, Shango Los. We’ve been speaking with Tyler Markwart of Allele Seed Research about genetically engineered cannabis. Tyler, we talked a lot about the different applications that genetically engineered cannabis could have and what it looks like right now big strides forward that are happening. As cannabis becomes legalized across the country and we move towards normalization, lots of folks are going to want to capitalize on this technology and develop their own strains of cannabis. What do you see coming over the horizon as far as intellectual property and how genetic engineering could be leveraged in this way?
Tyler Markwart: It’s really going to be interesting as far as figuring out proprietary plans for companies and stuff like that where people are going to be trying to employ a lot of intellectual property techniques because you can’t patent a plant. That’s why a lot of these companies don’t have corn as that’s their plant, nobody else can have it.
As cannabis evolves into a legal commodity, we’re going to see people putting a lot of money into research to get information out of this. We’ve already seen the cannabis genome start to be sequenced and that was done in 2011 by folks in Canada, I believe. What they did was they sequenced Purple Kush and compared that to Finola which is a hemp strain and they saw a lot of similarities between the two plants. What they noticed was the difference between the two was the expression levels of the genes.
For instance, if you have a genetic code for THC or CBD, whatever it is, the level at which that code expresses itself is what makes the plant Fino type and what makes these variations in the plant vary. As we move along, we’re going to be able to tag by adding certain sections of coding that’ll be specific. For instance, if you created a genetics biotech company called Shango Los Biotech, you literally could create a strain, a Shango strain and you could insert a specific genetic code that only you know and only you have the code for into the plant somewhere in its genetic code. There’s a lot of genetics sections that don’t really play major roles in the plant. You could insert in there. You would then be able to sell your seed and say, “This is Shango Strain,” and if somebody tried to rip you off you could then say, “No, this is not Shango Strain. I tested it. It did not test positive for my genetics or my flag.” You could also sue them if they planted your seeds and use them for breeding without your consent and by saying, “Hey, I put years of effort into developing this specific strain and you’re basically just ripping it off and selling it.” That’s what we’re seeing with the agricultural market today and I expect to see the same thing with cannabis in the next few years with proprietary strains and technologies.
Shango Los: I can see how pharmaceutical companies would be very cozy with that business model. Say for example they develop a cannabis strain that works really well with Alzheimer’s and so they tag it and then for X amount of years that particular genetic trait that they plugged in, no one else can do that and they’d be the only folks being able to sell that strain for Alzheimer’s patients. I guess, while I understand intellectual property, I’d like to at least think that there would be multiple different ways to engineer the plant so that more than one person would have a monopoly on a cure like that.
Tyler Markwart: There is. There absolutely is. The beautiful thing about it too is all people are wired completely different. What works for you may not work for me and that goes with cannabis and pharmaceuticals and all other types of medicines. Personally, myself, I don’t care for sativas. I’m already pretty high strung and run around. I don’t need the help from them to get there. I prefer an indica.
With this, it may work on a bunch of people, it may work on some people and it also comes down to we see that not one chemical seems to have that benefit of just applying … only CBD is the one that does it or only THC is the one that cures my headaches or stops my headaches. It’s really that entourage effect that Dr. Russo is talking about. The hurdle for the pharmaceutical model and the pharmaceutical company is that entourage effect. How did they control that and get it consistent when as a human you don’t want consistency, you want variation in your endocannabinoid system.
Shango Los: Before we wrap up here, what advantages might traditional hybridization have over genetic engineering? If we set aside the concern that folks, including me, have regarding the genetically engineered cannabis being out on the market under tested and something could happen wrong somehow in my body from using it, is there something that you can call out that genetic engineering just won’t be able to capture that selective breeding can claim as an advantage?
Tyler Markwart: Cost. It’s very, very, very expensive to do genetic engineering and it is not very expensive to open breed. If I take five different males of the same strain and put them in one field and breed them with a thousand different females from different strains, you’re going to get a huge variety of different mutations, a huge variety of different types of genetic profiles. Again, with the genetic engineering, it really allows you to dial in your outcome a little bit easier and better. If you want a purple plant that smells like oranges, it grows one foot tall, it flowers in 45 days, these can all be accomplished with genetic engineering, it just depends on how big your checkbook is.
Shango Los: That’s your big sell right at the end, Tyler. That sounds like a good plan. Thanks for joining us, Tyler. Tyler Markwart is founder of Allele Seeds Research. Tyler says if you want to reach him you can shoot him an email. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s T-Y-L-E-R-J-M-A-R-K-W-A-R-T@gmail.com. Thanks a lot, Tyler.
Tyler Markwart: Thank you for having me on the show today, Shango.
Shango Los: You can find the Ganjapreneur.com podcast right here on the Cannabis Radio Network website. You can also subscribe to the podcast in the Apple iTunes store or you can listen and read interview transcriptions on our home website at Ganjapreneur.com. Keep up to date on the latest cannabis news and events at Ganjapreneur.com. Thanks to Brasco for producing our show. I am your host, Shango Los.