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The World of Cannabis Genetics

May 25, 2023

One of the coolest things about cannabis, in our opinion, is how much it’s changed throughout the years. Just looking at a cannabis plant from 50 years ago and the plants we’re growing today – there's a huge difference. The culture of cultivation and the breeders who shaped the modern cannabis plant is something we really admire. So, we thought we’d talk about it: genetics, classification, plant science, and the evolving industry.  

To help with our discussion, I’ve turned to Jolyon (facility designer and grower) and Jorg (head grower) to give us all their info on plants, genetics, and how things have evolved over time.  

The Origins of Sativa and Indica

Originally, cannabis landraces just grew naturally around the world, as plants tend to do. Since then, cannabis has become one of the most widely cross-bred plants in human history. This means that the original landraces are hard to come by now, but people still search for them anyway. Because of this extensive breeding though, the genetics we have today are pretty much all hybrids by comparison, bred for the kind of qualities we wanted, like great potencies and more flavour.

Now, however, there are essentially four categories of cannabis, – Indica, Sativa, Ruderalis, and Hemp. Three of those four categories mostly have to do with how and where these plants evolved: Sativa generally originated from equatorial regions, Indica comes from the mountains in central asia, and Ruderalis originates from up north. Hemp has more to do with legal classifications than anything else.  

When it comes to telling plants apart, there’s a bit more to it than which ones have more sedative or stimulating effects. More specifically, they all have different flowering triggers. Indica plants are obligatory. This means that they’re looking for a change in the light cycle (a photoperiod) to go into flower. Sativa has a more facilitative trigger and looks for some other kind of stressor, like droughts or heavy periods of rain. This makes them a bit more challenging to keep in a dormant state as they get stressed easier. Lastly, Ruderalis is more of an autoflower which means it runs on an internal clock.  

According to Jorg:

“I believe there are 4 categories of cannabis. Gassy, earthy, fruity, and floral - as described by Kevin Jodrey. Everything falls into one or more of those buckets. In my world, Sativas are the fruity floral dominant strains, and Indicas are the gassy, earthy ones. If you think about where those varieties come from, fruity floral are equatorial where life was generally easier and food plentiful. Peoples there bred cannabis to be uplifting and less potent. In the mountain steps that Indicas come from, life was harder and cannabis was bred to be more narcotic. So the earthy gassy strains were bred to be strong and sedative.”

The Name Evolution

It wasn’t that long ago when there weren’t many seed producers and breeders in the world. These growers had certain varieties they had spent a long-time breeding to be incredibly stable and very unique. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of variety, but the cultivars they had were tried and tested. Animal Cookies was always Animal Cookies because it was coming from the same source.  

Eventually, this started to change with the Kush craze, and then everyone started crossing everything with everything. We got a ton of new genetic varieties, but there was no one to keep track of it all. As a result, even today, it’s hard to know the true lineage of a plant.

Also, just because they have the same name or came from the same clone doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll produce the same genetics or effects. Environment, including things light, nutrients, temperature, altitude, etc., can impact how a plant’s particular genetics are expressed.  

On top of all the variety inherent to the plant, cannabis brands have been known to change a product’s name based on what they think will sell. Sometimes they’ll flat out call it another genetic. As Jorg said: “Naming has always been market driven. What sounds cool is what it’s always been about I suppose.”

Chemotypes and Phenotypes

Another thing that’s important to understand for this whole discussion is what a chemotype and a phenotype is. Phenotype is like siblings: they all come from the same genetic pairing but contain different genetic expressions of that pairing. In contrast, chemotype is essentially the chemical makeup of the plant (or a specific phenotype) - kind of like a chemical fingerprint.

When it comes to cannabis plants, you have male and female (and sometimes intersex, but that’s another matter). When those two plants get together, the female plant creates seeds, and all those seeds are going to be different phenotypes: uniquely identical. One sign of a good breeder is in their ability to get as little genetic variation between all these seeds as possible.  

When it comes to chemotype, like mentioned before, all your growing variables like light, temperature, nutrients, pruning, soil or hydroponics, will all impact the genetic expressions of the plant. So, if you take two clones from one phenotype and grow them in two different rooms, you’ll have two unique chemotypes.  

Circling back to the talk about naming conventions and genetics, just because two cannabis plants may have been grown from the same phenotype doesn’t mean that their chemotype is going to be the same. Rainbow Driver grown here at the Woody Nelson facility and Rainbow Driver grown outdoors just down the road are going to be genetically different, no matter what seed they originated from.  

What the science says

Alternatively, we turn to terpenes and their impact. Turns out, terpenes might be the compounds that make the most difference when it comes to the effect a particular cultivar has on us – sedative, alerting, etc. This study, for example, found that the Sativa-Indica labels do not accurately represent genetic relation, and samples with identical cultivar names (like OG Kush), were often as genetically and different from each other as samples with different cultivar names. This study also found Sativa branded products to be more closely associated with sesquiterpenes like bergamotene and farnesene, while Indica branded products are more associated with myrcene, guaiol, and b-eudesmol.

That isn’t to say that these labels are completely arbitrary and don’t tell us anything about what we’re consuming, but the science into cannabis and genetics is still pretty new. In general, one thing we can take away from this is that cannabis classification is a lot more complicated than we originally thought it might be.

What We Hope for Moving Forward

A lot of this information can be controversial, especially to those who have been in the industry for years. With respect to everyone in the space, we’d like to see more open conversations and transparency around products and genetics in the future. Not just so we can develop a more effective, consistent industry language, but to also to make things a bit easier for everyone. We’d like people to know what they’re buying, what to expect, and maybe have a better understanding of the connection between plant genetics and what they enjoy about cannabis.

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