Scientists have found a way to genetically edit cannabis plants to resist powdery mildew, a fungus that thrives in moist environments with poor air circulation.
CanBreed, a company founded in Givat Chen, Israel in 2017, has reportedly found a way to alter the genome of the cannabis plant to resist mildew. The company was able to isolate and edit a gene that makes cannabis plants sensitive to fungal infections using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. In theory, pot plants with this edited gene will no longer produce the proteins that make them susceptible to powdery mildew infection.
“By the end of 2021 we hope to have the first powdery mildew-resistant cannabis seeds for commercial sale,” said CEO Ido Margalit to The Times of Israel. Margalit added that he hopes this discovery will “change the face of cannabis cultivation in Israel and around the world” by helping cultivators grow crops that are resistant to this common infection.
This new technology has only been tested in theory, and CanBreed still needs to grow the genetically-edited plants to ensure that they are actually able to resist fungal infections. If the tests are successful, the company intends to sell cannabis seeds that contain the mildew-resistant gene. These seeds would then allow cannabis cultivators to grow consistent, fungus-free crops without resorting to the use of toxic pesticides.
Powdery mildew is a common affliction that can infect cannabis plants, covering them with a thin layer of mold that can look like confectioner's sugar or sawdust. This infestation can pose a serious health risk to anyone that consumes it, and for this reason, legal weed states and countries require that all licensed growers destroy any cannabis plants that are contaminated with this fungus.
Illegal weed growers often use myclobutanil, a pesticide sold as Eagle-20, to kill powdery mildew, but this pesticide is highly toxic and can release cyanide fumes when combusted. Some legal weed growers in Alaska have even been accused of using Eagle-20 to keep their plants mildew-free, in violation of the state’s regulations.
Margalit told The Times of Israel that his company has patented their mildew-resistant gene and has applied for “many other patents that confer important agronomical traits in cannabis.”
CanBreed continues a long tradition of cannabis breakthroughs by Israeli research firms, cementing the country's well-deserved tradition as the world leader in cannabis research. Israel may soon be able to expand its dominance of the field even further, now that its government is finally working to end cannabis prohibition entirely.