Green Genes

Weed's been with us since the Ancient Steppes. Portland's Phylos Bioscience will revolutionize what we know about it.


In the winding curves south of I-405, across the street from the Oregon Health & Science University Integrity Office, the history of marijuana is being mapped. For 10,000 years, humans have carried this plant everywhere, but we still know astonishingly little about it. For the first time, its genetic lineage is being mapped; this means not only helping develop cures for disease, but also determining the tenor of your high with scientific certainty.

Mowgli Holmes, chief scientific officer at Phylos Bioscience, leads a team that is tackling a maze of crossbreeding and landraces, strains that were isolated in specific regions and adapted accordingly. Samples are culled and drawn from every available source.

"We're testing everything we possibly can," says Holmes, a molecular geneticist who has a doctorate in microbiology from Columbia University. "We're testing samples from jars pulled directly off the shelf from a shop in Ohio, in 1937, after prohibition went into effect. The pharmacist stashed them away in his attic."

I ask him for an example of a species the cannabis family tree will resemble. Apples? Grapes? He smiles.

"Humans," he says.

So far, the Phylos Bioscience team has sequenced more than 1,000 samples of modern cannabis hybrids, most of which are pulled from dispensaries around the world.

Now, the oddities are rolling in. There is the Ohio collection, an assortment of bottles, pills and gooey concoctions pulled directly from shelves in the early 20th century. There are Thai landraces to study, sterilized seeds from collections and museums across Europe, Russia and China.

Every available shred of cannabis DNA is here. And it must be cataloged.

Perhaps this conjures images of a laboratory packed with apothecarial garbage, an old hippie hoarder hunched over the browned glass fragments of medicine bottles from the late 1800s, with piles of yellowed herb scattered about.

But the lab is spotless and neat, with work stations establishing increasingly stringent clean-room standards. The researchers, led by Holmes and director of research Jessica Kristof, are dressed in lab coats. 

The cannabis samples don't even look like marijuana. Purified DNA look like salt and are suspended in a few drops of clean water, drawn from partner labs across the country. Having the actual plant on premises would raise legal concerns, and wouldn't be permitted on OHSU property. When Phylos Bioscience set out to research a plant that's probably growing within a 100-yard radius of you and yet is still classified by the Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule I drug, the lab's biggest hurdle was acceptance.

"We used to get a lot of chuckles," Holmes says. Writer Andrew Sullivan has identified this nervous titter as a uniquely American response to cannabis—if you've shared your cannabis consumption with weetotaling family and friends, you know the one. 

"But that just meant we had to present a stronger case," Holmes says. "People stop giggling when we tell them what we are doing."

Bottles from the collection of Don Wirtshafter.

It is surprising how little marijuana has been studied. The plant has vast potential—as a fiber, as an intoxicant, as medicine. Yet many highly educated people assume the plant's resources are tapped out at glaucoma and possible benefits to cancer patients, that the enthusiastic heralds of marijuana's healing properties are simply too stoned to know better.

"I'd say the climate among our colleagues shifted about four or five months ago," Holmes says. "Some of that might be due to Washington and Colorado not burning down, but I think most of the new interest was based on the science. Most of the research up to this point has been aimed at finding out what's wrong with marijuana. When CNN publishes a story where a child goes from 300 grand mal seizures per week down to a handful, scientists pay attention."

But asking for samples from growers required an entirely different form of bona fides than most Ph.D.s possess. After spending the majority of their career underground, Oregon growers are wary of outsiders and reluctant to provide samples. One particular danger is piracy: Bioprospectors sometimes attempt to patent indigenous plant species, and box out growers.

Both of Phylos Bioscience's co-founders—Holmes and CEO Nishan Karassik—grew up in Southern Oregon, with family ties to the Oregon Country Fair. These ties were instrumental in connecting the lab with the state's top growers.

The full findings won't be released for at least a few months, but the first thing genetic mapping will accomplish is a true catalog of what exists. Strains have been marketed with colloquial nicknames for decades, and nothing we know can actually prove that the Trainwreck you put down seven months ago wasn't something else entirely, like Lamb's Bread or a one-off mutant hybrid.

If it's determined a strain has been identified by a number of handles, a panel of experts called the Open Cannabis Project—unaffiliated with Phylos—will pass final judgment. In exchange, growers will receive legitimacy: A map of marijuana's genetic history will shield the state's underground innovators from nefarious bioprospectors looking to bank a fast buck by patenting strains that already exist.

But in the long run, the genetic map could provide a baseline for understanding how the plant gets you high, and how it helps alleviate symptoms. We know THC is instrumental in fueling marijuana's psychoactive effects, but we barely understand why highs are so different between strains. We didn't even know our body's cannabinoid-receptor system existed until 1988. Breaking down the chemical makeup of different types of cannabis will kick-start research into why some strains make a user hungry, drowsy, energetic or expressive.

The results will also answer the debate over how we classify cannabis. Most dispensaries still classify strains with uplifting and energetic effects as sativas, sedating ones as indicas, and the vast array in the middle as hybrids. But the latest research shows that all drug strains and Chinese hemp are indica, while only European hemp should be classified as cannabis sativa. We may need a whole new way to think about pot—maybe something like the color-coding system at Portland dispensary Farma.

But back to why the family tree of cannabis resembles that of humans.

Alongside figs, barley, flax and rice, cannabis has been cultivated by humans since the dawn of civilization; some theorists believe cannabis was one of the catalysts for civilization.

Over the centuries, the seeds we carried across continents and oceans were scattered—and the type of cannabis we grew was always adapted to the people who used them. Some were carried over the Russian steppes, to be planted and woven into clothes. Some nestled in isolated valleys, and some climbed foothills into the mountains. Some strains, such as Durban Poison and the Thai strains, developed very singular effects and flavors.

Prohibition drove the plant underground, pushing marijuana's illicit qualities to the fore. "THC content is at historical highs now. How we grow the plant is market-driven. It's the moonshine effect," Kristof explains. "When a product is forced underground, it usually becomes more potent, because products with higher potency are easier to move and conceal."

Beyond what researching marijuana will teach us about the plant itself and its benefits and drawbacks, Phylos Bioscience's research into the plant's genetic history will also tell us something about who we are, where we've been, and how we dragged our favorite herb along the way.

Willamette Week's Annual Weed Issue, 2015

Vancouver Marijuana Scene Report Six New Portland Dispensary Picks

 How To Talk to Your Parents About Weed | Cannabis Shop Etiquette

Map: 10 Best Marijuana Discounts | Can a Lifelong Pot Hater Find the Perfect Strain?

The Most Advanced Bong Ever | Mapping the Weed Genome

Great Advances in the History of Oregon Weed History

WWeek 2015

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