UBC cannabis researchers find that "frosty" flowers mean potent pot

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A team of UBC researchers used advanced techniques in microscopy and chemical profiling to determine that cannabis flowers with the biggest hairs produce the most CBD, THC, and fragrance-emitting terpenes.

The research was the first to detail the structures and chemical-creating abilities of the three kinds of frostlike pot hairs—stalked, sessile, and bulbous—called glandular trichomes.

Finola, a fast-flowering hemp variety of Cannabis sativa, was used by the team, which included researchers from UBC's Wine Research Centre and the Michael Smith Laboratories.

Microscopy image of stalked glandular trichome.
UBC/DEPT. OF BOTANY

Teagen Quilichini, the study's co-lead author and a postdoctoral fellow with the botany department, said in an October 28 UBC news release that the study is an important beginning for subsequent research.

“Despite its high economic value, our understanding of the biology of the cannabis plant is still in its infancy due to restricted legal access,” Quilichini said. “Trichomes are the biochemical factories of the cannabis plant and this study is the foundation for understanding how they make and store their valuable products.”

The paper—"Cannabis glandular trichomes alter morphology and metabolite content during flower maturation"—appeared in the August 30 edition of the Plant Journal

Anne Lacey Samuels, a botany professor and principal investigator for the study, said in the release that there could be many downstream benefits of the research.

“We found a treasure trove of genes that support the production of cannabinoids and terpenes. With further investigation, this could be used to produce desirable traits like more productive marijuana strains or strains with specific cannabinoid and terpene profiles using molecular genetics and conventional breeding techniques.”

The UBC team determined under ultraviolet light that the stalked trichomes glowed blue and had large, distinctive secretory discs of cells that looked like microscopic mushrooms or hamburgers.

“We saw that stalked glandular trichomes have expanded 'cellular factories' to make more cannabinoids and fragrant terpenes,” co-lead author Sam Livingston said in the release. “We also found that they grow from sessile-like precursors and undergo a dramatic shift during development that can be visualized using new microscopy tools."

Livingston, a botany department PhD candidate, noted that UV light might be used to determine flowers' trichome maturity so growers would know the best times to harvest.

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