Behind the cannabis scenes: What’s in a gene?

by Nick Gonzales

On a basic level, everything about a cannabis bud — its flavor, effects, strength, and development — begins in its DNA. The genetics control not only the quality of each strain, but the quality of each plant that embodies that strain as well.

If you think back to Biology 101, which you totally remember because there definitely wasn’t any THC in your system at the time, the traits of plants and, well, all living things are determined by their genotype and phenotype — the blueprint of the plant and the way it’s physically expressed, respectively.

Cultivators of cannabis, like any crop, have always selectively bred their plants, favoring good traits and weeding out bad ones. But over the 20th century, growers began hybridizing their strains, combining not just the qualities of generic sativas and indicas, but specific strains to create new ones. It’s how, say, you get an aromatic, euphoria-inducing gelato from its parents, Thin Mints and Sunset Sherbet.

What makes a particular strain worth growing also depends a bit on who it’s being grown for. Mike Sassano is founder and CEO of Solaris Farms, a large-scale cannabis greenhouse cultivation operation in Nevada. His state is just on the other side of Utah, but its dispensaries aren’t looking for the same things in weed as the dispensaries in Colorado.

For example, Colorado has a reputation as a destination for marijuana tourism, but Nevada’s economy is all about tourism, cannabis-based or otherwise. As a result, the tourists make up a much larger percentage of the customers hitting its dispensaries. These travelers generally come from places where cannabis is illegal and less a part of the culture, and they typically aren’t as savvy as someone from a legal-pot state when it comes to what makes a strain great. The one thing that they know is that THC is the part that gets you high, and that’s what they seek out.

“Here in Las Vegas, consumers want the stuff that killed Elvis. They want the highest THC, the highest terpenes,” Sassano said. “I could show them a wonderfully tasty HP 13 (strain) … but it would only get the bottom of the barrel $1,000 per pound, $1,200 per pound. Whereas our other strains get anywhere from $1,800 to $2,600 per pound. … It’s unfortunate, but as growers here, all we can do is get our volumes up and keep our THC and terpenes up, and there’s no forgiveness. There’s no benefit to a great taste sometimes if the numbers aren’t there.”

In other words, you Colorado cannabis connoisseurs, with your tastes for smells, textures, and nuanced effects, are in the right place — at least as far as states bordering Utah are concerned.

The quality of the weed, though, can differ wildly between two plants of the genetically-same strain, as their phenotypes are expressed differently. This is why people seeking to capture a perfect strain and pass it on through multiple generations clone their plants rather than growing them from seeds. What’s terrible for cannabis farmers (but kind of neat for sci-fi fans), though, is that the genetics deteriorate as growers take clones from multiple generations. (It’s not just a thing from “Multiplicity” or the “Up the Long Ladder” episode of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation!)

It turns out that all sorts of stuff goes into growing great cannabis, even on the molecular level, which is why we’re glad that there are experts out there looking into this.

Nick Gonzales

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