With nearly daily advancements and technological breakthroughs in the flourishing cannabis industries, I don’t get very excited too frequently about the “next big thing.” However, a new farming technique, if you want to call it that, has grabbed my attention – mainly due to my own experience in microbiology. A research organization, known as New Harvest, is developing a technique called cellular agriculture to produce pure cannabinoids. Cellular agriculture uses single celled organisms to produce a specific product through genetic modification. The unusual and weird aspect of the concept is that although the cannabinoids are produced by a living organism, the organism is not a cannabis plant. Instead, they will be produced inside living bacteria or yeast cells using the informational blueprint cloned from cannabis DNA and then inserted into the single celled organism’s genome. This provides the necessary “code” that cellular processes follow to synthesize cannabinoids in the exact same chain of events as occurs in the plant.
Cannabinoids are a group of chemicals produced by cannabis plants that act on the body’s endocannabinoid system. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the best-known cannabinoid because it is responsible for marijuana’s intoxicating effects. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is another well-known cannabinoid that research has indicated to have anti-stress, anti-convulsive, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and tumor-suppressing properties (just to name a few potential medical benefits). Cannabis plants produce large amounts of THC, but most other cannabinoids are produced in very low amounts. These much less concentrated cannabinoids, for example cannabichromene (CBC), cannabigerol (CBG), and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), each have their own potential medical benefits. Also, combinations of cannabinoids may have different effects than the same cannabinoids taken separately. Therefore, demand exists for concentrated, yet still affordable, isolates with high purity. Unfortunately, cannabis plants do not produce high enough concentrations of these cannabinoids to make extraction and purification feasible for profitability on a large scale. That is where cellular agriculture has potential benefits and manufacturing applications.
In New Harvest’s proposed cellular agriculture cannabinoid production, bacteria or yeast cells will be grown and synthesize the cannabinoids rather than plants. The benefit is that these unicellular cultures can be grown much more easily, and very quickly, compared to growing the number of plants it would require to produce the same amount of cannabinoid. The cannabinoids will still be the exact same molecule and will be manufactured utilizing a “natural” rather than synthetic chemical production method. The exact same genetic information that codes for enzymes responsible for cannabinoid production inside cannabis trichromes will literally be copied and inserted into a bacteria or yeast cell. Then the cells will grow and replicate just as they would naturally, except each cell will now be a microscopic cannabinoid production factory growing in a laboratory. Therefore, there will be no difference between CBC produced via the cannabis plant and CBC produced in a lab beaker by cellular agriculture once extraction and purification are complete.
The concept of cellular agriculture may seem like a far-fetched futuristic plan, or people may be hesitant to accept the idea due to concerns about genetically modified “mutant” organisms. However, the method of cellular agriculture is not an unusual or revolutionary concept – only the idea of producing cannabinoids is the novel aspect of the research. A very similar process has been in place since 1978 when researchers used bacteria to produce human insulin. The idea of cellular agriculture was utilized – copying human DNA, inserting it into a single celled organism, followed by growth, extraction, and purification. This resulted in an easier, more controlled production method that creates an exact copy of human insulin and was able to provide a safer, more reliable supply of the life saving medicine.
I am not a supporter of getting too far away from the “natural” plant-based healing benefits of cannabinoids, for example using completely synthetic production. Yet, I would love access to these beneficial cannabinoids to be available to the public at an affordable price, therefore cellular agriculture may be a perfect production method to utilize for these medically beneficial cannabinoids to be produced on a manufacturing scale. Depending on the legal status of cannabis in the future, cellular agriculture may also circumvent legislation by providing a cannabinoid production process in places where cannabis plants are illegal. There are still many more years of difficult work and development that will have to be accomplished before cellular agriculture will be a viable option to produce cannabinoids, but I am definitely excited about the future possibilities.