Israeli researchers use repurposed plant virus to grow ‘enhanced’ cannabis

Israeli researchers have used advanced technology to grow an enhanced strain of cannabis that contains higher levels of THC and CBG, the main active components in cannabis, opening up new possibilities for the popular medicinal plant and recreational drug.

In work conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, researchers were able to successfully engineer and grow a cannabis plant with close to 17 percent higher levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive component in cannabis, and 25% higher levels of CBG (cannabigerol), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid — a substance usually associated with a sensation of physical relaxation and sometimes used as a treatment for sleep disorders, inflammation and chronic pain.

The lab-developed strain also had a 20–30% higher presence of terpenes, which are responsible for maximizing the euphoric effects of cannabis

The study’s goal, according to a statement issued by the university, was to develop a mechanism that would allow researchers to intervene in the biochemical pathways of the cannabis plant and change the levels of active substances it produces.

Researchers were eventually able to increase or decrease the levels of specific substances by manipulating a plant-based virus and repurposing it. Instead of harming the plant, researchers created a version of the virus that was able to affect the genes of the cannabis plant that influence the production of its active substances.

Close-up image of the enhanced cannabis plant grown by Israeli researchers at Hebrew University. (Hebrew University)

“This represents an innovative use of these tools, which were constructed using synthetic biology tools,” said Prof. Alexander Vainstein, who led the project.

Manipulating a cannabis plant and affecting the levels of its active components or their proportions has never been done before, the university noted, opening up new possibilities for the medical industry.

“These study results will be valuable both to industry, to increase the yield of active substances, and to medical research, to cultivate and develop new strains for medical cannabis users,” Vainstein said, adding that more experiments will be done with the engineered plant and that the information will be made available to the cannabis industry within months.

The scientific community has so far been able to identify over 200 active ingredients in the cannabis plant and a race is underway to identify additional substances and medical treatments that can be derived from it.

Professor Alexander (Sasha) Vainstein. (Hebrew University)

Israel’s medicinal cannabis market was valued at around $264 million in 2021, roughly $7 million less than the entirety of Europe’s, according to Prohibition Partners, an industry analysis firm.

Last August the government amended its medical cannabis export rules to allow for the export of cannabis seeds. The change came after intensive pressure from companies in the cannabis industry.

And earlier this month, the first-ever export shipment of Israeli cannabis seeds left for the US, with the Israeli Agriculture Ministry hailing the move as a major step toward Israel becoming a global pioneer in the field.


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