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Researchers identify “hacks” that cannabis cells use to produce cannabinoids - Breakthrough
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Researchers identify “hacks” that cannabis cells use to produce cannabinoids

The research revealed the microenvironments in which THC is produced in cannabis trichomes, shedding light on the pathway of making THC or CBD within the cell.

Cannabis has been cultivated for centuries for its pharmacological properties that result from consuming its specialized metabolites, primarily CBD and terpenoids. The $20 billion global cannabis market largely relies on the biological activity of tiny cell clusters, called glandular trichomes, found mainly on the plant’s flowers. These trichomes produce the cannabinoids, THC and CBD, which are the primary components that give cannabis its medicinal properties.

For many years, researchers have been trying to understand how the plant produces cannabinoids. Recently, a group of plant biologists at the University of British Columbia has identified the high-efficiency “hacks” that cannabis cells use to make these compounds.

Defining the high-efficiency hacks of cannabis cells

Dr. Sam Livingston, a botanist at the University of British Columbia, led the research that identified the high-efficiency “hacks” that cannabis cells use to produce cannabinoids. The research revealed the microenvironments in which THC is produced and transported in cannabis trichomes, shedding light on several critical points in the pathway of making THC or CBD within the cell.

The researchers used rapid freezing of cannabis glandular trichomes to immobilize 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 found that the cannabis plant has developed subcellular “shipping routes” to create an efficient pipeline from raw materials to end products without accumulating toxins or waste products. This new model can inform synthetic biology approaches for cannabinoid production in yeast, which is used routinely in biotechnology.

A paradigm shift in understanding cannabinoid production

Dr. Lacey Samuels, a plant cell biologist at UBC, said that “for more than 40 years, everything that we thought about cannabis cells was inaccurate because it was based on dated electron microscopy.” She added that “this work defines how cannabis cells make their product. It’s a paradigm shift after many years, producing a new view of cannabinoid production.”

Until now, synthetic biology approaches have focused on optimizing the enzymes responsible for making THC/CBD, like building a factory with the most efficient machinery to make as much product as possible. However, 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 of the cell where final products can be collected.

The researchers’ findings have provided insight into the subcellular processes of cannabis cells and have created a new model for the production of cannabinoids, which will inform synthetic biology approaches. These findings could help to optimize the production of cannabinoids outside the plant in yeast or cell cultures, which is an area of growing interest in the biotechnology industry.

Conclusion

The study conducted by the researchers at the University of British Columbia has identified the high-efficiency “hacks” that cannabis cells use to produce cannabinoids, primarily THC and CBD. The research has revealed the microenvironments in which THC, such as Delta-8 THC, is produced and transported in cannabis trichomes and has provided insight into the subcellular processes of cannabis cells.

The researchers’ findings could help to optimize the production of cannabinoids outside the plant in yeast or cell cultures, an area of growing interest in the biotechnology industry. The discovery of subcellular “shipping routes” could lead to an efficient pipeline from raw materials to end products without accumulating toxins or waste products.

Overall, this research has provided a new view of cannabinoid production and has the potential to inform synthetic biology approaches for cannabinoid production in yeast, which is used routinely in industry.

Vey Law

Vey Law is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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