Plant biologists in Canada have identified the high-efficiency ‘hacks’ that cannabis cells use to make cannabinoids. 

Although many biotech companies are trying to engineer THC and CBD outside the plant in yeast or cell cultures, it is largely unknown how the plant does it naturally. 

Research lead Dr Sam Livingston from the University of British Columbia said: “This really helps us understand how the cells in cannabis trichomes can pump out massive quantities of THC and terpenes – compounds that are toxic to the plant cells at high quantities – without [the plant] poisoning itself. 

Image: Jirawut Seepukdee

“This new model can inform synthetic biology approaches for cannabinoid production in yeast, which is used routinely in biotechnology. Without these ‘tricks’, they’ll never get efficient production.”

The study, published in Current Biology, reveals the microenvironments in which THC is produced and transported in cannabis trichomes, and sheds light on several critical points in the pathway of making THC or CBD within the cell. 

Dr Livingston and co-author Dr Lacey Samuels used rapid freezing of cannabis glandular trichomes to immobilise the plant’s cellular structures and the metabolites in situ. 

This enabled them to investigate cannabis glandular trichomes using electron microscopes that revealed cell structure at the nano level, showing that the metabolically active cells in cannabis form a ‘supercell’ that acts as a tiny metabolic biofactory. 

The researchers said until now, synthetic biology approaches have focused on optimising the enzymes responsible for making THC/CBD – like building a factory with the most efficient machinery to make as much product as possible. 

However, they claimed these approaches haven’t developed an efficient way to move intermediate substances from one enzyme to another, or from inside the cell to the outside, where final products can be collected. 

The research, they said, helps define the subcellular ‘shipping routes’ that cannabis uses to create an efficient pipeline from raw materials to end products without accumulating toxins or waste.

Dr Samuels said: “For more than 40 years, everything that we thought about cannabis cells was inaccurate because it was based on dated electron microscopy.

“This work defines how cannabis cells make their product. It’s a paradigm shift after many years, producing a new view of cannabinoid production.”

Prior to launching Cannabiz, Martin was co-founder and CEO of Asia-Pac’s leading B2B media and marketing information brand Mumbrella, overseeing its sale to Diversified Communications in 2017. A journalist...