At 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.