SMART Breeding: Growing the next elite strain

 Legalization and new techniques in cannabinoid science usher in a new age of marijuana. Photo by Gracie Malley

Legalization and new techniques in cannabinoid science usher in a new age of marijuana. Photo by Gracie Malley

Excerpt from THIS BUD'S FOR YOU: Legal Marijuana--Selecting, Growing & Enjoying Cannabis by Timothy Anderson

Being a buyer at Harborside Health Center, a bustling medical cannabis dispensary in Oakland California, offers me the unique and unprecedented opportunity to view a diverse spectrum of cannabis of all varieties grown with countless different indoor and sungrown methodologies. But with more choices available than ever before, growing a strain that appeals to a wide range of cannabis consumers occurs only with the melding of art and science.

 In an era where it has become easier both legally and technologically for gardeners to cultivate cannabis, the amount of product available in markets like ours is immense but repetitious. Photo by Gracie Malley

In an era where it has become easier both legally and technologically for gardeners to cultivate cannabis, the amount of product available in markets like ours is immense but repetitious. Photo by Gracie Malley

Having access to excellent genetics is as easy as strolling into the local dispensary to choose a strain either from racks overflowing with verdant clones or seed catalogs that are large as the ones in the Netherlands. Although their choices are myriad, growers gravitate toward the most well-known or popular strains and mostly ignore the rest. The result is that both large commercial cultivators striving for dependable and bulletproof plants and newbie growers who only grew a few clones are likely to have similar strains.

Access to desirable genetics for both high-level cultivators and novice growers has become more and more equal. For example, the variety Gorilla Glue #4 went from being exclusive and highly desired to market saturation in a period of less than two years. Compare that to the previous crazes like Girl Scout Cookies, which took several years to reach a wide availability for the Chem/OG/Sour family, which remained tightly controlled for a decade becoming widely cultivated. The days of $1,000 OG Kush clones are not yet a distant memory. It is fairly easy to correlate this access with both the legal tolerance of dispensaries as well as the cannabis community’s vigorous networking on online forums, and we can only expect the rate of cycling from “rare” to “available” to increase rather than decrease.

Cultivators frequently ask me what they should grow to guarantee a niche on our shelves, and my answer frequently disappoints: “Something we don’t see all the time.” It should be no surprise that growing from seed is the best way to do this, allowing the grower to pick a phenotype that is both unique and all their own, at least until the grower gives someone else the cutting. Wide retail access to reliable clones in legal states has done much to dampen cultivators’ interest in sprouting seeds — let alone saving a male to make their own hybrids — and that has much to do with this slump of diversity in the current marketplace as well.

 It would not be surprising to see future combinations of modern pre-potent varieties and older, unexplored landraces as breeders search for the promise of new offerings. Photo by Gracie Malley.

It would not be surprising to see future combinations of modern pre-potent varieties and older, unexplored landraces as breeders search for the promise of new offerings. Photo by Gracie Malley.

The monotonies are easing up a bit. At Harborside the Chems, Cookies and purple Indicas remain the best sellers but hybrids of older African landrace varieties such as Red Congolese and Nigerian Silk have gained popularity and have both modern THC potency levels as well as unique terpene sets. The return to older gene pools is where the search for newness often takes us.

The most interesting development: the hyper evolution of cannabis concentrates. This brought about a “second coming” of hashish culture albeit in a new and modern form. Cannabis concentrates are more popular than ever, and the diversity of type continues to multiply. The potency and purity of these concentrates is greater than previously available because extractors have better access to both high-quality input product and cutting-edge technology.

 The future promises many surprises for cannabis users. Photo by Nadim Sabella Photography.

The future promises many surprises for cannabis users. Photo by Nadim Sabella Photography.

A new development phenomena is seed breeders and concentrate makers working symbiotically. The resin covered shattered bracts left over from seed collection are perfect for extractions and collected when green. Some seed producers have created brands for their own extracts to take advantage of their labor. What is most interesting about seed breeders extracting is the potential influence of extract making on breeding. Middle Eastern farmers once bred for traits such as gland size or for the gland to break off from its stalk, this is essential for plants intended for hashish production. Modern breeders growing specifically for concentrate production have the same thoughts, as whole crops of cannabis plants are extracted. These breeders may also tinker with traits such as toughness of the resin gland’s cuticle or thickness of its wall. This would be a major advantage to extract makers.

 Photo by Nadim Sabella Photography

Photo by Nadim Sabella Photography

Terpenes are another component of the resin that is being actively explored and bred for. Ed Rosenthal’s seminal article in Big Book of Buds vol. 3 published in 1998 followed by Dr. Ethan Russo’s 2011 paper on “the entourage effect” cast the cannabis plant’s naturally occurring aromatic compounds in a new light. Rosenthal, then Russo, effectively outlined the interaction and synergy of terpenes with THC and cannabinoids, which basically illustrates that each strain’s unique “high” is mostly based on how those aromatic compounds alter THC’s effect on us.

High Pressure Liquid Chromatography testing for terpenes is utilized throughout the cannabis industry and is accessible to almost any cultivator in legal states. Buyers may finally be moving away from overall THC potency being a dominant market force with this new awareness and interest in terpenes. The typical cannabis flower tends to have about 1% terpene content, although there have been reports of some with 3%+. These levels will be increased by breeders.

With legal cultivation it will become easier for farmers to utilize classical breeding methods. For the best results a very large number of plants are cultivated from seed only a few are chosen, this process was very difficult to follow during prohibition. Even in the modern era many cannabis seed breeders still work in batches of selections of far fewer than 100. It’s easy to imagine the potential if that number increased to a thousand or more!

The other perhaps more potent element at play is the cannabis genome. Researchers already have a good working knowledge of the genomes various triggers for growth structure, phytochemical output (i.e. cannabinoids and terpenes) and many other traits. The threat of GMO cannabis seems to spook many from supporting these genome studies but in truth what we stand to gain is worth setting those fears aside. One of the more exciting prospects is the use of the principles of SMART (Selection with Markers Advanced Reproductive Technologies) breeding — using the knowledge of the genome to achieve the full potential of the plant, but breeding with traditional methods. It offers us our best hope in dealing with one of the most challenging issues that we face as the scale of cannabis cultivation grows larger; mold and insects or more specifically the pesticides used to fight them. By following the plant’s genomic map and breeding towards increased resistance, we would be able to step closer to fighting infections with out the use of chemicals.

Pest resistance is not the only benefit that SMART breeding offers, future strains will be intricately and immaculately crafted works of scientific art. Imagine the ability to choose preferred cannabinoid content, terpene set and growth style like a chef in a kitchen with any ingredient at your disposal. By utilizing landrace, older strains, and feral strains the SMART breeder will be able to adeptly reach into nature’s toolbox for the right genes.

I hope that the cultivator who is wondering what he/she should grow next can sense the pulsing current that carries cannabis persistently onward: newness. Finding it yourself is as easy as this: grow seeds and pick your favorites, retain males, check them for potency, yield, etc. and collect their pollen to make your own hybrids.

Finally, use quality lab testing to identify your most unique plants. The recipe for the next “elite strain” in your local marketplace — if not the entire world — is truly that easy.


Do you want to grow your own marijuana?

 Marijuana Grower’s Handbook is the official course book at  Oaksterdam University .

Marijuana Grower’s Handbook is the official course book at Oaksterdam University.