Genetic engineering and synthetic biology – making cannabis production greener

The therapeutic benefits of medicinal cannabis have been liberally splashed across newspaper headlines in recent years, and the public attitude towards the drug is changing. Cannabis-based products for medicinal use can now be prescribed in the UK and in other countries who were faster off the mark. Furthermore, recreational use of cannabis is now legal in many areas of the world – it has been legalised in 11 US states.

The potential benefits of cannabis and the molecules found within the plant are huge. It is already prescribed for epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and to relieve the side-effects of chemotherapy in the UK, but it has also been suggested as suitable for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, appetite loss, cancer, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease, eating disorders, glaucoma, and mental health conditions. Not all potential indications have been backed up by systematic scientific studies at this stage, but there is strong hope that future research could identify further indications that can be successfully treated by cannabis-based products.

Changing public perception and increasing levels of medical research is good news for cannabis companies and the rapid development of the industry provides plenty of opportunities for innovation. We have previously reported on how a strong IP portfolio is vital to protect such advances. This is certainly the case for biological methods of crop improvement which hold so much promise for the industry.


What could be achieved through plant science research?

Active compound yield improvement

Whole cannabis plants are not typically sold to the consumer, the active compounds (e.g. tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinoids (CBD)) are of most interest. It could be of huge commercial benefit to cannabis growers and medicinal product producers if active compound yields could be increased and production prices could be reduced. This could potentially be addressed in a number of ways, such as (1) utilising advanced molecular breeding techniques to increase yields, (2) by metabolic engineering to upregulate or downregulate compound levels to obtain an optimum spectrum, or (3) by improving growth efficiency by improving light harvesting, pest resistance, and nutrient use etc. Many other options are possible and research is ongoing.


Biomass optimisation

Cannabis plants (species names: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica) are typically fast growing plants – hence the nickname “weed”. However, many of the active compounds with medical properties such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabinoids and terpenes are only found in sufficient levels in the inflorescences (buds) of the plant. This means that much of the crop biomass is not useful for the production of active compounds.

It is reported in a recent Nature Outlook article that researchers from Trait Biosciences have genetically modified plants to constitutively express genes of interest systematically within the plant for biomass optimisation and increased yields. Trait Biosciences have engineered plants to produce CBD throughout the plant. Similar research could be performed to increase the production of other compounds of interest.


Environmental impact

As worldwide efforts towards reducing carbon emissions grow, it is important that new ventures do all that they can to reduce their environmental impact. Outdoor cannabis growth may be possible in many areas of the world, but that is not the case everywhere. Indoor growth requires a light sources and environmental control mechanisms which require considerable energy input. Such energy requirements could have negative environmental consequences and also drive up costs for producers. Genetic engineering could reduce the light requirements and change the environmental requirements of plants to reduce energy usage and drop costs, but synthetic biology may offer even more exciting results in this regard.

The production of THC, CBD and other cannabis compounds could be driven by microbes such as algae, bacteria and yeast. The expression of heterologous genes and pathways in these organisms could drastically reduce costs for producers. Such microbes can be grown in bioreactors in highly controlled environments at a lower cost with highly reproducible results. The recent Nature Outlook article mentioned above notes that over 18 companies are racing to produce cannabinoids in algae, bacteria or yeast. An exciting method was recently published as a scientific manuscript in Nature.

It is unlikely that microbial production will completely take over the market, as natural products in plant form are likely to be desired by consumers. Moreover, there is research ongoing into a potentially beneficial ‘entourage’ effect of the combination of natural molecules found in the natural plant product (no evidence as yet). However, microbial production of cannabis compounds is a hot topic and is likely to be extremely commercially valuable in the future.


IP protection

There are many more areas in which genetic engineering and synthetic biology techniques could be employed in the booming cannabis industry. This means that there are a large number of future inventions to be protected. Patent protection can be obtained for genetically modified plants and microorganisms, the use of said organisms in methods of active compound production, and novel methods of plant growth.

Patent protection of plant products can be a complex topic in Europe and careful consideration needs to be taken to enable the most relevant and effective IP protection is achieved. Mewburn Ellis have a Plant Science team with strong experience in the field who are happy to advise you on the best way to protect your innovations.