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Two companies are joining forces to develop new cannabis varieties, and they’re prioritizing efficiency and sheer speed in this rapidly growing industry.

NRGene, a provider of genome sequencing and analysis, has partnered with Pure Cannabis Research AG, a Swiss breeding company and subsidiary of Pure Holding AG, to tailor new cannabis strains to fit customers’ needs.

To speed up the process, Pure Cannabis Research will use NRGene’s DeNovoMAGIC technology to assemble multiple cannabis genomes. The platform was used to assemble the first complete wheat genome and has since been used on other crops including potato, strawberry, barley, rye and oat.

Additionally, NRGene will employ its PanMAGIC technology to create what it says is the world’s first cannabis pangenome, a collection of sequences that provides insight into the natural genetic diversity of cannabis by comparing which genes are present in which strains.

NRGene’s GenoMAGIC technology will also be used during this project to identify markers for key traits.

Gil Ronen, NRGene’s co-founder and CEO, is excited to bring the company’s technology to the project and looks forward to more collaborations in the future. “We want to serve everyone,” he says. “We want everyone to benefit from our tools.”

Here, Ronen discusses NRGene’s partnership with Pure Cannabis Research, what the project entails and how the global cannabis market will develop as new varieties emerge.

Cannabis Business Times: What does the partnership between NRGene and Pure Cannabis entail, and why were the companies a good fit to work together on this project?

Gil Ronen: NRGene is a genomics company—genomics meaning that we are analyzing and reviewing the sequence of DNA of different crop lines. … It could be maize, wheat, soy bean, canola or any other plant. We are developing algorithms and software to do that. …

Together with Pure Cannabis, we are working on the cannabis genome. 

They want to develop new varieties that are improved in the different beneficial compounds of cannabis. Pure Cannabis currently is focusing on CBD, and they have multiple products in CBD, including beverages and smoke alternatives. … Using classical breeding, which is a 100-percent natural process, they want to improve the varieties, meaning to develop new plants that have more of these beneficial compounds.

CBT: Can you describe the overall process of conducting this project?

GR: They produce many, many plants and they need to test them all. We want to improve that with a roadmap. We can tell them, if they want plants with higher CBD content or different flavors, you need to clone this and this gene in your next variety. So now, they can use DNA tests in the early stages of plant growth and realize in the very, very early stages which of the plants are the most beneficial for them, even before the flowering stage, and only grow and continue to cultivate the best ones. Then, they section off the best ones and try to get even better individuals. 

This is a continuous process where you’re sectioning and crossing different individuals that already have beneficial genes in them and looking at what it is in even better ones. … With us, they can do DNA tests and clone thousands [of plants] and get the same result. We can lower the overall investment and shorten the time to develop new varieties.

CBT: What are some key traits of the cannabis plant that Pure Cannabis will be looking to develop during this project?

GR: For them, the flavors are very important because [they] put [the product] into drinks, and you want a good flavor. … The CBD content is [also] very, very important. They also want low THC because their varieties are not allowed to have a high concentration of THC, so they want high-CBD, low-THC [and] good flavor. …

Our software can find any gene of interest [and] any gene combination—sometimes you need more than one gene to improve certain traits. You may need three, four or five genes. So, it’s up to them to choose the right traits and just feed information to the software, and then we discover the beneficial genetic combination for the specific trait. …

Of course, [there are] other traits that are important agronomically for cultivation of the plant, [such as] disease resistance. If it’s disease-resistant, you don’t have to spray a lot of chemicals, and you get more organic cultivation. So, we could do that, as well.

Another thing we probably would like is high-yielding plants—big and full. This is another trait that is important agronomically for the farmer … and it could affect the final product price. If you have high-yielding plants, you [can manufacture] the product for lower cost.  

You can breed for better agronomic traits or better flavor or higher concentration of compounds or lower concentration of compounds, so it depends on the needs. Our system can pick any trait or combination of traits.

CBT: NRGene says it is using its technology to create the world’s first cannabis pangenome. What is a pangenome, and why is this so significant?

GR: You have many different cannabis varieties, and each of them has different traits of interest. If you do a single genome—meaning, you picked a single individual plant and mapped the full DNA, the full genome of this specific plant—that’s great, but it gives you only a single insight to the overall diversity that occurs naturally in cannabis, like in any other crop. So, you know a lot about a single plant, but you know nothing about all the others.

A pangenome is doing exactly that, multiple times on different varieties, and you can ultimately capture all the key varieties in cannabis and then compare them and build a database of all the possible genes within cannabis that exist in nature. This is much more important and much more usable because then you can pick the right genes that exist naturally and try to include them in your next variety rather than understand a single variety. …

CBT: Do you have any insight on how the international cannabis market might develop as new varieties emerge?

GR: I believe it will follow the route that many, many other crops followed. I believe it will be all about regulation and legalization.

Today, the question is whether cannabis is legal or illegal, but after it is legalized for medicinal or recreational … uses, now you ask, “OK, so what is legal? What are the varieties that are OK to use?” Especially for medical treatments, you need to make sure that you use something that is uniform because you want it to be like medicine. So, you need to [ensure] that in a big greenhouse, all the plants are the same genetics, so they will probably produce the same compounds, and then a batch of medicine that comes from the greenhouse will be pretty much the same. I believe that the regulations [will] say, “OK, this variety is approved to use for this medical ailment, and this variety is approved because you know for sure the THC versus CBD compounds and ratios,” etc.

The way I see it is that now governments will give permissions to use varieties and not just cannabis in general. So, they’ll say if you’re using cannabis variety x, you’re allowed to grow it here and you can use it for this medical treatment and you can say that it has these compounds for labeling [purposes]. This is what’s happened in many, many other crops, and it’s true probably for cannabis. … The regulation moves from the crop to varieties, and we could expect that here.

This is why working on the genetics and genomics is very important because it could give you your own brand. You can distinguish yourself from other players and say, “OK, I developed this variety. This variety always has this THC and CBD. If a grower grows this variety, they can be sure that it can be replicated and can be sure that it will be approved for different uses,” etc. So, this is what I see from years of experience working with crop plants what I can expect to happen in cannabis, as well.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Top Image: © Katie | Adobe Stock

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