By: Jessica Bartlett
October 6, 2016
From Purple Haze to Orange Crush, the names given to different strains of marijuana are colorful, and largely just based on where the plant is grown or what people experience when smoking it.
But with medical marijuana’s recent legalization in many states, Woburn-based Medicinal Genomics Corporation is clearing the haze from the differences among different kinds of plants, offering genomics-based quality and strain identification testing for medical and recreational marijuana.
“We set out to ask, what questions can we answer with DNA?” said Kevin McKernan, chief scientific officer for Medicinal Genomics, which also offers genomics testing for patients. “The first thing that became apparent in the market is people are tired of not knowing what strain they are dealing with. People name the strains with esoteric and colorful names, but there is no guarantee of what you have.”
After offering a test version of the service to Colorado marijuana manufactures in April, the five-year-old company this week started offering genomics testing for marijuana growers across the country. Clients send DNA samples to the company and receive a partial genome sequencing of the plant, providing a fingerprint of each plant. That can help growers know which plants are psychoactive — containing the euphoric ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol — and which have high amounts of a compound known as cannabidiol that offers medicinal properties of the plant, without the ability to get someone high.
In the 25 states and the District of Columbia which have legalized medical marijuana, the market for genomics testing is wide open. Scientists now typically test only for contamination of plants.
But growers have started to sequencing their strains for intellectual property reasons, and also analyze the genetics to determine which plants are male and shouldn’t be planted (male plants pollinate, ruining an entire crop), and which ones are most productive. For consumers, genetic mapping can tell patients which strains are related, so they can effectively shop at dispensaries. In recreational pot markets, growers are using genetic testing as a branding tool.
McKernan says the size of the market is tough to gauge, but he says safety testing in the food industry — which typically captures 1-3 percent of the market — may be a good guide. If that same percentage holds true in cannabis, the market opportunity could be as much as $1 billion, given the estimated $20 billion to $40 billion market anticipated by 2020. McKernan argues it could be even larger if the company helps marijuana growers breed specific plants with specific properties such as a longer plant with tall stems for hemp fiber, or one with a lot of seeds to make oil.
“We think it will go beyond measuring the fingerprints,” McKernan said. “Traditional agriculture genomics is they began measuring … to select particular traits and could accelerate breeding programs.”
While Medicinal Genomics is growing the marijuana-testing side of the business, the 100-person company will recognize most of its 50-100 percent annual growth on the other side of the business that looks at patients’ genomes to determine the best treatments. Currently, the company is sequencing between 500 to 1,000 patients a month.