"I know you are all hoping I'm going to talk about weed," Mowgli Holmes told the crowd at TechFestNW today. "But I'm just going to talk about corn."
Holmes is the chief scientific officer of Phylos Bioscience, a biotechnology firm leading the development of the cannabis genome. He did in fact talk about weed, after first examining the way humans dramatically altered the biology of corn more rapidly than would have naturally occurred.
Cannabis, like corn, was one of the few plants humans domesticated some 10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture. "Humans brought it with them everywhere they went," Holmes said. "They took it to every corner of the world."
Human cultivation of cannabis created a huge amount of diversity within the species, Holmes said. "It's being pushed to a point in the evolutionary landscape that it never would've gotten on its own."
Holmes is now working on the Cannabis Genome Project, an ambitious project to visually map the DNA makeup of cannabis. His goal is to allow the genome to remain in the public domain, and prohibit certain strains of cannabis from being patented, "basically just to piss off Monsanto," he said.
While genome mapping isn't generally an attention-holding subject, Holmes believes public interest in cannabis will allow people to engage with the project. "It's probably the first time that civilians can really geek out over data visualization," he said.
Holmes said mapping the cannabis genome will allow his team to better understand the medicinal and recreational components of the plant, and allow people to make better use of them. The project will allow for the creation of targeted medicines that are even more effective than current medicinal marijuana.
Currently, legal marijuana is a $3 billion industry nationwide. By 2020, it is predicted to grow to $40 billion, Holmes said, which would make cannabis the third-largest agricultural market (behind corn and soybeans).
Despite Holmes' hope for the future of cannabis, he acknowledges Big Pharma's resistance to embrace it as medicine.
"You grow it in your own backyard, and then you take lots of it," he said. "That's a hard thing for people in traditional health care to understand."