Gene Technology for Boosting THC Levels Is Here

Stephen Andrews
07 Jul 2022

A new technique can help growers genetically modulate the expression of Delta-9 THC in cannabis cultivars. The technology can turn THC content down, or it can turn it up. But basically, here we are discussing GMO weed, and whether consumers are ready to spend their money on it is a big unknown.

The technological novelty was recently announced by Indiana-based biotechnology company Growing Together Research Inc (GTR). Company representatives say its new technology has the ability to increase levels of the psychoactive cannabinoid in strains cultivated for recreational or medical use. 

It would be the second time this year that GTR, which partners with Texas A&M Agrilife Research for the project, to come up with news it has successfully regulated genes in cannabis crops. In its first bid, the team successfully edited gene expression to almost completely eliminate Delta-9 THC from designated hemp cultivars. Something which could save hemp farmers the trouble of breaching federal THC limits of 0.3%. When this limit is exceeded, farmers are required to destroy the crop or face legal actions for cultivating marijuana. 

Between 2018 and 2020, more than 10% of planted hemp in the U.S. was destroyed because of breaching the 0.3% THC limit, according to research by New Frontier Data. GTR's modified hemp cultivars are expected to enter the market at the end of 2022, reports Forbes.

Using the same technique to silence THC gene expression, GTR has now managed to do the opposite: help plants boost THC. Along with partners in Canada, the company intends to engineer strains with enhanced expression of THC, which will arrive in the marketplace in the second half of 2023. 

The gene-altering method has been dubbed "Delta9 Dial" by GTR. It can modulate THC expression up and down in what's seen as a significant push in stable gene editing of cannabis plants, which is notoriously difficult to achieve. With it, cultivators may choose from a menu of traits to customize the genetics of their plants.

In the future, GTR CEO Samuel Proctor believes Delta9 Dial could be used to regulate THC levels in cannabis to specific percentages.

"The same technique we are using to create a silenced THC plant can be used to modulate CBD and CBC levels as well, so while we are currently focused on silenced THC and high THC cultivars, we may be able to 'tune' our approach to whatever cannabinoid content our customers and partners are seeking," Proctor told Forbes in an interview. 

The Delta9 Dial method has been so far applied on five different cultivars in the lab and has "successfully and stably" transformed all specimens, Proctor said. 

He adds: "This success indicates that our technique should be applicable to all cultivars, whether it's for silencing or increasing levels of THC."

If anything poses a problem then, it would be the public reservation on anything GMO. Although regulating the THC levels in cannabis plants is quite different from, say, creating GMO foods, fears are easy to arise, and the GTR team is very much aware of it.

Dimitri Samaratunga, COO at GTR, explained the technique for Forbes, however. 

"GTR is introducing a short DNA sequence that blocks the production of a single enzyme involved in a single branch of the cannabinoid biosynthetic pathway. There are no foreign genes added from other organisms," he said.

Proctor mentioned a few other benefits of biotechnology, too. Such as the possibility of boosting nutritional contents in foods, specifically fruits and vegetables. Biotechnology can also help manufacturers avoid harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides and can even help reinforce a plant's carbon absorption ability. 

All of this is a significant gain from science, but not all of it has always proven to work with consumerism. Whether gene-regulated cannabis works with seasoned users, it's a path we still need to walk.

Stephen Andrews