Scientists are fermenting genetically engineered microbes in order to create pure cannabinoids in a laboratory without cannabis plants.
‘Precision Fermentation’ (PF) is a term that refers to the integration of genetic engineering with fermentation.
Created by using the process, Precision-Fermented Cannabinoids (PFCs) have many potential uses, including new medical treatments.
Leading the charge in the field is a Canadian company, Cronos Group, who have developed the first cannabis edible to feature a cultured cannabinoid (CBG) from fermentation.
But how will lab-grown cannabinoids affect the future of the cannabis industry?
How are cannabinoids grown in a lab?
There are numerous cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, but cannabigerol acid, or CBGA, acts as a scaffold for the production of other cannabinoids. It’s like a parent cannabinoid from which all others are made.
When growing cannabinoids in a lab, CBGA is initially produced in yeast. It is then transformed into other cannabinoids using a special enzyme that is first isolated from the yeast itself.
This enzyme converts the CBGA ‘mother’ cannabinoid into to THCA and CBDA. Heat is then applied to THCA and CBDA in order to convert them into THC and CBD respectively.
Why are cannabinoids being grown in this way?
Traditional cannabis farming has several environmental issues since it needs a lot of energy to cultivate cannabis or hemp indoors. Lighting and temperature control require power, not to mention the demands of hydroponic systems.
Indoor cannabis cultivation is entirely unsustainable, according to studies, emitting between 2,283 and 5,184 kilos of CO2 per kilogramme of cured cannabis bud, depending on the location of the grow.
Outdoor-grown cannabis obviously consumes less electricity, but its water usage could be unsustainable, depending on the location of the grow. Harvests per year are also obviously limited without advanced daylight control systems.
Additionally, outdoor cannabis cultivation can require pesticide and herbicide use, as well as posing other contamination issues. Heavy metals in the soil may also be a problem for some growers.
PFCs offer an efficient, sustainable solution as they consume less power and water than both indoor and outdoor growing, and no need for pesticides or herbicides.
Additionally, biosynthesized cannabinoids are being touted as a method of achieving product uniformity, which is somewhat of a holy grail for cannabis growers.
Despite the fact that many growers struggle to attain batch-to-batch uniformity in their cannabis harvests, it is not difficult to do so by growing cannabinoids using the proper scientific procedures. And you can be harvesting your cannabinoids every single day, instead of once every few months!
What are the cost savings of fermented cannabinoids?
The cost savings associated with switching from greenhouses to bioreactors are significant. Currently, one kilogramme of high-quality CBD derived from plants sells for more than $5,000 on the wholesale market, making it the most expensive extract product available.
Cannabinoid yeast production will be able to do the same thing for a mere $400 per kilo.
Also to be considered is that there are around 100 distinct cannabinoids that are naturally present in cannabis, but because they appear in such small quantities it has been difficult to carry out studies on them.
They are created in such low levels in cannabis plants that it would be necessary to use huge amounts of plant matter in order to extract enough material to do the tests. And even then the cannabinoids may not be consistent or purified adequately.
Fermentation culture changes this completely.
What are the future implications of PFCs?
Regardless of the difficulties associated with production, the beauty of this type of bioengineering is that it provides researchers with a powerful platform from which to investigate what each individual cannabinoid might be useful for in a medical context.
Scientists can not only isolate the best cannabinoids for treating anxiety, inflammation, or epilepsy—but it can also be ascertained which cannabinoids in the plant might interact with one another, creating more interesting potential medicines.
This is referred to as the entourage effect, and it appears that CBD, for example, can help to reduce the intense effects of THC.
Would you consume lab grown cannabinoids?
This kind of cannabinoid creation represents a huge shift for the cannabis industry, with potential market disruption almost certain in several areas of cannabis production.
Would you be happy to consume lab grown cannabinoids? Would you even know?
For flower enthusiasts, major change seems unlikely. If you are in the extraction business though, this new technology could bring shock waves to the industry over the coming years as cannabinoids start to appear from different sources, more consistently and at a lower cost.
There is, however, talk of taking these extracts and infusing them into cheap hemp plant buds in order to make cheaper cannabis flowers. Outrageous? Would we even notice though? It’s already happening with pre-rolls and traditional extracts in the US.
There are obviously also significant market implications for the supply of CBD and medical cannabis products across the world.