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Weed sequenced. No really – weed.

maryjaneAt last, the field of genomics has something to offer Cheech and Chong. DNA sequencing hit a new high last night with the midnight release of the Cannabis sativa genome. The raw sequence was posted on Amazon’s EC2 public cloud computing service by a young company called Medicinal Genomics, which aims to explore the genomes of therapeutic plants.

Thus far the company is only posting the raw sequence reads – meaning that the over 131 billion bases of shotgun sequence have not yet undergone the important and arduous process of being assembled into contiguous chunks. For now, the sequence is fragmented into hundreds of thousands of snippets. But Medicinal Genomics founder Kevin McKernan says he estimates the size of the C. sativa genome to be about 400 million bases – roughly three times the genome of that other weed, the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

And in case you’re wondering: the DNA was extracted and prepped for sequencing in a laboratory in Amsterdam.

McKernan says he was turned on to the idea of sequencing cannabis by a 2003 publication in Nature Reviews Cancer about the many potential uses – including fighting cancer – of cannabinoids. C. sativa makes about sixty of the compounds. Although THC has gotten the most attention, McKernan hopes his company’s data will help scientists explore a few of the others, and perhaps guide plant breeding programs to generate new Cannabis strains.

No word yet on whether the information can also help researchers construct a van made out of marijuana, but chances are that some enthusiast out there will look into that possibility if the company follows through on its pledge to make genome annotations available as an iPad app next fall.

Also appealing to McKernan: the growing medical marijuana market, which he says is swelling by over 50% a year. “It’s going to have to be a fairly regulated market,” he says, “and regulation is going to come through genetics and fingerprinting of which strains are approved.”

McKernan’s name may ring a bell for sequencing buffs. In 2000, he cofounded Agencourt Biosciences, a spinoff of which eventually created the technology underlying the popular SOLiD sequencing platform now sold by Life Technologies.

McKernan dipped into his own bank account to launch Medicinal Genomics, and says he also has funding from the network of angel investors – mostly friends and family – that helped him get Agencourt off the ground in 2000.

Image: warrantedarrest, Flickr, creative commons.


  1. Report this comment

    Uncle Al said:

    A planet overflowing with misery and want is being threatened with relief. “Non tamen solam intendit interiorem, immo interior nulla est, nisi foris operetur varias carnis mortificationes.”

    Cannabis requires almost zero agrichemical support to lushly grow and highly yield. Feral corporate profits squeezed from farmers and consumers in a hundred different ways would be dashed upon the rocks. Prosperity is not to be slathered amidst those who create it, for that is hoarding. Prosperity distills toward the top where it belongs.

  2. Report this comment

    Toby said:

    Cannabis is one of the best plants on Earth (‘best’ referring to the science of ethics, of course); sequencing it has some great potential for aiding the production of medicine of immense importance. Cheech & Chong is a joke: pot itself is under-rated & it should be used more often than it is. It’s role in supplementing the endocannabinoid system of vertebrates makes it part of healthy lifestyle & it’s anti-cancer properties set it apart from other medicines… its benefits are many & is, clearly, not a weed.

  3. Report this comment

    NBH said:

    So, raw sequence was posted on Amazon’s EC2 public cloud computing service implies it’s publicly available. Link? Everything else on the internets just cites this blog post about it. Hopefully someone mirrors it before Amazon/NWO take it down.

  4. Report this comment

    smiley said:

    now we need a folding@home style group to crunch the DNA 🙂

  5. Report this comment

    Adnan said:

    “the important and arduous process of being assembled into contiguous chunks”

    Although these chunks are called “contigs”, the term is misleading. Short reads are assembled into long continuous segments, not contiguous ones. If you had two segments (“contigs”) and you knew that they were contiguous, you’d join them and make a single continuous segment.

    As for a weed (technically a useless plant) getting its genome sequenced, Arabidopsis was first.

  6. Report this comment

    Brian Owens said:

    Thanks Guy, I’ll add that to the main text now.

  7. Report this comment

    Bernard Boulay said:

    Cannabis plant never ceases to amaze me.It serves the needs of all mankind indeed.Fiber type plant with no THC for those who want to make paper.Resinous type for your recreational user and medical patient with 3-25%THC.Same thing goes for its DNA: the sense strand used by big pharma to make pharmacological products under the DEA governance and the antisense strand used by recreational users and plant molecular geneticists inhabiting the Emerald Triangle who wants to turn the herb into a perennial.

    The future looks exciting.

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    Never was a stoner... said:

    Hmmm. Bio engineering at it’s finest. Let’s take the THC producing genes, insert them in a human infecting retrovirus and spray the live virus up our noses! That would address “human suffering”!

  9. Report this comment

    Aliarse said:

    This might be a good thing, but the day big pharma starts making massive profits from cannabis/sick patients, while maintaining its illegal status for natural cannabis will be a very sad day indeed.

  10. Report this comment

    Carl said:

    Excellent information, I am working with a company to create a database of tested strains using TLC. We hope to have a free online database and independent testers in every state.

  11. Report this comment

    Rhino White said:

    This should have been done a long time ago but as McKernan demonstrated with his Agencourt Biosciences, you need support and funding for this kind of project.

    Nevertheless, I’m glad that they’re doing the Cannabis sequencing now. I’m convinced that more and more benefits to humanity from this benevolent plant will be discovered when they’ve completed this.

  12. Report this comment

    phonon said:

    NBH, the NWO? Where do you crackpots come from?

    Toby, I think you misread the article. Cannabis sativa is a weed (and not in the sense of “pest plant”).

    Cannabis certainly contains compounds that are useful but it isn’t a cure-all and some people are prone to becoming dependent on it. That being said, I believe it’s one of the safest recreational drugs and adults have the right to decide whether or not they want to smoke it.

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    Movenosound said:

    I have often wondered if there would be an effort to quantify and characterize the cannabis genome. Events of the past century have led to a situation around the world that I have thought is conducive to a loss of genetic diversity of the different species within this genus. Since the introduction of the species of cannabis indica to the greater international cannabis cultivation culture, the species sativa has been crossed, hybridized, and at times replaced altogether. Until this article I have been unaware of any effort to preserve the genetic diversity of what is and will likely prove to be a plant with much value to humanity (and I refer here to value outside of the cultivation and sale for recreational consumption).

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