Plant biologists have for the first time identified the high-efficiency “hacks” that cannabis cells use to produce cannabinoids (THC and CBD). Although several biotechnology companies are attempting to manufacture THC/CBD outside of the plant in yeast or cell cultures, the natural process is mostly unclear.
Dr. Sam Livingston, a botanist from the University of British Columbia who led the research, explains, “This really helps us understand how the cells in cannabis trichomes can pump out massive quantities of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and terpenes—compounds that are toxic to the plant cells in high quantities without poisoning themselves.”
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“This new model can guide synthetic biology approaches for the manufacture of cannabinoids in yeast, a common organism in biotechnology. Without these “tricks,” production will never be efficient.
Humans have cultivated cannabis for ages because of the medicinal characteristics of its specific metabolites, particularly CBD and terpenoids. Today, the $20 billion worldwide cannabis business is mostly dependent on the biological activity of glandular trichomes, which are located primarily on the plant’s flowers.
The study, which was published today in Current Biology, exposes the microenvironments in which THC is created and transported in cannabis trichomes and sheds light on numerous crucial stages along the process of THC or CBD synthesis within the cell.
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Dr. Livingston and co-author Dr. Lacey Samuels froze cannabis glandular trichomes rapidly to immobilize the plant’s cellular components and metabolites in situ. This allowed them to examine cannabis glandular trichomes with electron microscopes that revealed nanoscale cell structure, demonstrating that the metabolically active cells in cannabis create a “supercell” that functions as a miniature metabolic biofactory.
Up until now, synthetic biology efforts have concentrated on optimizing the enzymes responsible for producing THC and CBD, analogous to constructing a factory with the most efficient machinery to produce the maximum amount of product.
However, these methods have not yielded an efficient method for transporting intermediate chemicals from one enzyme to another or from the interior of the cell to its exterior, where final products can be collected. This research helps clarify the subcellular “shipping routes” used by cannabis to establish an efficient pipeline from raw components to finished products without accumulating toxins or trash.
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Dr. Samuels, a plant cell biologist at UBC, asserts that for more than four decades, our understanding of cannabis cells was erroneous since it was based on outdated electron microscopy.
This study describes how cannabis cells manufacture their product. After several years, this paradigm change has produced a fresh perspective on cannabis manufacturing. This study has been difficult due in part to legal prohibition and also because no procedure for the genetic modification of cannabis has been published.