Unmasking genetic variation: why Platform Genetics’ Deep Variant Scanning and cannabis breeding are a perfect fit

Cannabis is an immature crop following decades of prohibition. Think corn roughly a hundred years ago. So when it comes to trait development, the possibilities are endless.

Although cannabis cultivation isn’t new, cannabis breeding is in its infancy relative to other agricultural crops. However, this is beginning to change. The legal landscape in Canada and around the world has created a burgeoning industry. Growing competition requires that cannabis producers increasingly seek ways to boost the quality and quantity of harvest. This makes cannabis ripe for a new wave of breeding driven by a modern-day understanding of genetics.

Scaling-up trait development in commercial cannabis

Historically, small-scale cannabis breeders focused their efforts on developing traits in cannabis that are popular with consumers, such as cannabinoid and terpene profiles. This interest persists today, with breeders attempting to create new varieties with unique chemical profiles – enriched THC, CBD, terpene outputs – each geared toward different recreational or medical markets.

Beyond medicinal properties, a growing need exists to breed cannabis strains that possess agronomic traits making it suitable for large-scale commercial production. To limit crop failure and maximize returns, cannabis must be bred for disease and pest resistance, resistance to abiotic stress, nutrient uptake and fertility requirements and harvestability. Higher yields, faster growth rates, bigger bud harvests or high oil production may also offer a competitive advantage. Further product differentiation may be achieved through cultivars with consumer-preferred taste and smell.

Capitalizing on cannabis’ genetic diversity

Over the last several years, large-scale DNA sequencing has started to chart the genes underlying the vast array of cannabis’ phenotypic and agronomic traits. This understanding provides a rich opportunity for breeders to use molecular genetic techniques to select for gene variants in cannabis that confer desirable traits. Drilling down to the genetics of cannabis strains can help guide breeding efforts and deliver cultivars specifically tailored to consumer preference and grower needs.

Deep Variant Scanning: harnessing the power of reverse genetics

Platform Genetics core service, Deep Variant Scanning (DVS), enables clients to harness the power of reverse genetics for trait development and crop improvement. The DVS platform is essentially a series of laboratory and bioinformatics pipelines that can rapidly identify genetic variation across a large population of plants using high-throughput DNA sequencing. Proprietary alignment-free algorithms identify variants in the population, followed by high-throughput genotyping to identify specific lines carrying the genetic variant of interest. Lines harbouring variant alleles that confer desirable traits can then be introgressed into new cultivars to produce strains tailored for commercial purposes.

Because DVS works for virtually any crop – including polyploid species, species with large repetitive genomes and outcrossing/heterozygous species – it is well-suited to cannabis. Also, because DVS can be used in permanently-archived variant populations, in transient variant populations or to access naturally-occurring genetic variation in germplasm collections, there are virtually no limits on the source of genetic variation cannabis breeders can bring to the table. 

DVS offers several advantages to breeders. Not only does DVS take the guesswork out of breeding by identifying allelic variations in a gene – with 99 per cent certainty – it also focuses and accelerates the breeding process, taking only weeks to go from a candidate gene to plant lines representing an allelic series of variations in that target gene.

This feature sets DVS apart from the genome-editing tool CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which typically takes months from start to finish. DVS also offers an alternative, non-GMO platform for translational trait development, using a process that mimics natural mutation rather than genome modification to deliver desirable traits.

How Platform Genetics can help

With deep-rooted experience in plant genomics and trait development, Platform Genetics is a trusted, client-focused partner that can help fast-track trait development in cannabis in a way not previously possible. Through collaborative partnerships and on-going communication, Platform Genetics’ DVS platform allows breeders to precisely and efficiently tailor new cannabis strains with enhanced qualities while significantly reducing costs and timelines. The result is a game-changing competitive advantage for cannabis producers.