Medicinal Genomics, out of Woburn, Mass., is doing far-out things with cannabis, and they have nothing to do with smoking it. The company, which brothers Brian, Kevin, and Brendan McKernan founded in 2011, is using DNA technology to create “fingerprints” for individual plants, providing information with a variety of applications to the cannabis community.
One of the ways in which DNA identification helps is that growers and consumers can more easily and accurately navigate the myriad strains and ensure that they’re properly named and consistent across regions. Genetic information can create an industry standard, so the Sour Diesel that you buy in Colorado is the same as the Sour Diesel you buy in other states, removing the cultivation guesswork and approximation that results from legislation now allowing growers to ship clones out of state.
“The main intent here is to bring some level of fidelity to the nomenclature system,” says Kevin McKernan, Medicinal Genomics’ Chief Scientific Officer. “There are great names out there, but some people are doubting if they’re real. That nomenclature system is hampering the industry. If we can help clean it up with genetic profiles, people will start to cherish certain strains and rely on the names so they can go find it in another state.”
While seeking greater quality control, Medicinal Genomics isn’t looking to dismantle the current naming system. In fact, McKernan says he and his brothers love the colorful names. But he also notes that there is a need to protect those who have spent the time working on certain strains.
“It’s very easy for people to counterfeit someone’s work,” says McKernan. “So, if you do come up with a special strain, and it becomes popular, the moment someone can quickly rename another strain, it suddenly devalues the craftsmanship of someone who brings out the original strain.”
Intellectual property issues aside, strain fidelity is important for scientific integrity and advancements. Without confirmed DNA sequencing, cannabis manufacturers may not even know what specific plant they have.
“[Growers have] been told it’s a ChemDawg 91 but it’s been passed through a chain of custody where there’s no fidelity,” explains McKernan. By testing clients’ plant DNA (the company does not work with cannabis samples at this time because of legalities), Medicinal Genomics provides growers and manufacturers with a better understanding of the plants that they’re cultivating and helps guide breeding dynamics, marketing, and development of products tailored to the needs of patients.
Being able to sequence a plant’s DNA can help in marker assisted selection, which allows growers to breed strains with specific characteristics. Perhaps they want an autoflowering plant, or one that has really big buds, or big leaves for making oil, etc. The possibilities are endless.
“If we can tag genetic markers to these traits,” McKernan says, “people can then begin to screen for them and breed for plants that are basically hyper-evolved in that direction.”