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Tissue Cultures Are The Future of Cannabis Grow Ops

Branna Z.
Tissue Culture plants in test tube

When you are able to grow exactly what you want when you want, free from contaminants or pathogens, that is GOLD.  Literally and figuratively.

The plant, Cannabis sativa L., has its origins in Central Asia and has been used in traditional medicine, as well as the textile industry, since the dawn of our ancestors. Due to its great healing potential, cannabis is experiencing a surge of interest from medical research teams, the extract industry, and pharmaceutical companies.  One challenge that exists for all three is how to access a consistent product that can reliably produce the same medicinal result time after time. And with that requirement, the development of technology that caters to this demand for consistency and predictability. This is what tissue culture offers.

ancient cannabis drawing

Image Credit: via

If you need a certain percentage concentration of cannabinoids for extraction purposes, how can that be achieved? If you need to test the efficacy of a strain on treating a human illness, how do you control for genetic variations within the plant? Using clones is one option, but it is fraught with risks for the entire production site, including powdery mildew, fungal infections, bud rot, fusarium in the roots, and the list goes on. Each pathogen can bring down your entire operation if it comes into the grow and there is a breach in sanitation procedures.

Indoor cannabis grow large operation close up on plants

Image Credit: Xela Person

What is Tissue Culture About?

This is a controlled, aseptic technique, where a whole plant, plant cells, tissues, organs or protoplasts are propagated or cultured. This means that all the plants would be a “clones” or identical to each other. Aseptic means free from the contaminants, such as insects or other microorganisms. This is extremely important since the buyer of these identical cultures is expecting to get great, identical plants without any problems.

This consistency can be hard to achieve with live plant clones cut from the Mother. We spoke with one greenhouse manager for a Canadian producer in Nova Scotia. He was tasked with sourcing the clones that would be used for extraction of CBD. The selling company was charging $200/clone plus royalties, and the clones were infected with a powdery mildew! Clearly, there has to be a better way.

Powdery mildew infection on cannabis leaves

Image Credit: via

The procedure for the culturing of the cannabis plant is relatively simple. A small piece of the plant (called an explant) is placed in the sterilized dish containing the necessary requirements for the plant’s growth. These include a growth media substrate with agar (gelatinous-type substrate), sugars, and regulating chemicals for the growth. Specifically, in the case of the cannabis plant, micro nodes from the original plant are placed in the sterilized test tubes and allowed to grow for 10-14 days. After this time, the node has developed into the juvenile cannabis plantlet with no roots. With the fresh media and appropriate conditions, this new plantlet can be indefinitely divided into the new explants with the same genetic material as the “parent” plant. The whole process can be divided into 4 distinct stages:

  1. Establishment of the aseptic culture
  2. Multiplication
  3. In-vitro Rooting
  4. Acclimation
Tissue Culture plants in test tube

Image Credit: Swapan Photography

Benefits of Tissue Culture

What this technique allows is that the phenotype of the plant can be manipulated in the desired way. This means that the clones/plants can be produced in such a way to make a specific metabolic signature. Certain plant tissue could be manipulated to produce more or less of a specific compound (cannabinoids or some other useful product).

The benefits of the tissue culture certainly include the possibility of acquiring the plants without pests and diseases. At the same time, the resulting plants are all genetically identical and “corrected” from the genetic mutations and problems carried down from their “mother.” Also, logistically, tissues are more easily stored and shipped than grown plant cuttings.

Plant Tissue CultureImage Credit: Shutter by M

Drawbacks of Tissue Culture

Now, the problem with this technique is that is very time consuming, and the yield might not be very high. It can also get confusing, if multiple strains are necessary. While cuttings from the plant reach maturity faster than the plant tissue, it takes about two weeks for them to reach planting stage, versus a month for the tissue to reach the same stage.

The use of genome editing tools in the cloning of Cannabis sativa L. will allow the possibility to produce single cannabinoids in high concentrations or to modify the conditions in which they grow so that it changes pharmacological properties of the resulting cannabinoids.

With careful planning, the tissue culture method will have advantage over traditional cuttings for the industrial size production.



Branislava Zagorac
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