Industrial cultivation of hemp is seeing a massive expansion in the United States due to new federal laws and consumer demand.
Because of these changes in regulation, part of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, researchers are legally able to perform tests on hemp and growers can produce plants. In 2021, hemp, which has a THC concentration of less than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis, was grown on 54,000 acres with a value of more than $824 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In partnership with York University in Ontario, Canada, and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, Virginia, researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences received a $600,000 grant to study the regulation of the genes that are responsible for cannabinoid biosynthesis.
“We’re interested in the regulation of the gene expression of the enzymes that are responsible for cannabinoid biosynthesis,” said Bastiaan Bargmann, an assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “We currently just don’t have a lot of knowledge about how the biosynthetic pathway is regulated.”
An improved understanding of those processes could allow for better selection or modification of plants with particular cannabinoid content, potentially increasing profits and reducing risk for growers, as crops with more than the allowed level of THC must be destroyed. Discoveries could also help the pharmaceutical industry as cannabinoids are becoming increasingly significant for the treatment of pain, anxiety, epilepsy, and cancer.
“We have a list of nine transcription factors that we want to investigate further and see if they regulate the expression of these genes that are involved in cannabinoid biosynthesis,” Bargmann said.
To understand the regulation of the cannabinoid synthesis pathway in hemp (Cannabis sativa L.), researchers will map the relationship between factors that turn on or off the genes for enzymes, measure the effect of manipulating these factors, and engineer hemp cells and plants with the modified profiles.
“If we can find ways to manipulate the biosynthesis so that, instead of these main ones (THC and CBD), we start to get other ones like CBG (Cannabigerol), CBN (Cannabinol), and others, then we can perhaps grow crops that have a greater economic value than the ones we currently have,” Bargmann said.