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    Is There Really GMO Pot?
    By Steve Savage | August 13th 2013 05:10 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    An interesting issue came up through my volunteer work for the new website, "GMOAnswers.com".  Apparently some pot users are concerned that they might be unwittingly consuming what they consider to be a dreaded "GMO."  

    The irony is that while marijuana has definitely been "genetically modified" to contain higher levels of THC, that change didn't involve the tools of modern biotechnology.

    Instead, the changes were achieved using rather clumsy methods from the past.

    New plant varieties have often been based on chance mutations in their DNA.  For instance the sweet corn varieties we enjoy today include a mutation that allows them to retain their sugar content after picking. In the 1950s and 1960s many plant breeders employed "mutation breeding" to increase the chances of finding DNA changes that would result in new traits.  

    They exposed the plants or seeds to doses of chemicals or radiation that would cause random mutations, and then looked for the rare cases where there was some desirable effect.  They would also use the toxic chemical colchicine to induce the plants to double their number of chromosomes, something that sometimes leads to more vigorous growth.  These same methods were quite successfully employed by the extra-legal marijuana industry over the last few decades.  

    Both mutation breeding and chromosome doubling can lead to genetic changes which are undesirable but which remain undetected.  If you go through the list of "what ifs" that are typically raised by the opponents of genetically engineered crops (new allergens, changes in regulatory pathways or other patterns of gene expression...), these old methods are far more likely to create such problems. 

    Unlike a modern biotech crop where the exact nature of the genetic change is known, we really have no idea what all has changed in crops improved using these "old school" methods. Kevin Folta posted an excellent comparison of transgenics and mutation breeding.

    However, the crops developed using these clumsy tools have never been regulated or safety tested like biotech crops.  They qualify for use in organic farming.  Such crops would not have to be labeled under the various bills and initiatives that have been proposed.  

    Now the truth is that foods developed using these old methods have a decent track record of safety.  But applying the same "you never know about long-term effects" logic used against biotech crops, we really can't be sure they are ok, even after decades.  I guess the advantage is that you are less likely to worry about such questions after partaking in some mutant, highly-ploidy weed.

    Cannabis raid image from the West Midlands Police

    You are welcome to comment here and/or email me at savage.sd@gmail.com. I tweet about new posts @grapedoc

    Comments

    Hank
    I think that if marijuana users can ignore the obvious health concerns (and magnify the supposed medical benefits) it won't be long before advocates lobby for healthier weed. 

    And it will be good for the taxes we will need to pay for the people who get lung cancer from the smoking pot - GMO marijuana sells for 10X the organic kind.

    I am going to start a label company. Soon we can certify marijuana as 'natural' or 'organic' or '100% organic' or 'Extra Strength' too.
    Warning: Hank Campbell is a certifiable whack job.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Unfortunately, there's no getting around the fact that a new glysophate resistant GM marijuana plant that is repeatedly sprayed with Roundup while it is growing, would probably require another contaminant to be added to the Wikipedia Adulterated Cannabis list because it isn't currently there :)


    'Glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine) is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds, especially annual broadleaf weeds and grasses known to compete with commercial crops grown around the globe. It was discovered to be a herbicide by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz in 1970.'


    'Glyphosate's mode of action is to inhibit an enzyme involved in the synthesis of the aromatic amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine. It is absorbed through foliage and translocated to growing points. Because of this mode of action, it is only effective on actively growing plants; it is not effective as a pre-emergence herbicide.'

    I wonder if anyone has tried smoking glysophate yet and if that is already a component of GM glysophate resistant tobacco, presumably that does already exist? 

    Steve, presumably what is being sold as 'organically farmed'  tobacco these days would not include Glysophate resistant GM tobacco or glysophate or Roundup sprayed tobacco? Or does it?

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    sdsavage
    Helen,there is not GMO weed or tobacco on the market.  Organically farmed tobacco is a well documented carcinogen just like every other tobacco. It has nothing to do with glyphosate use.  There is no reason to think that people even dumb enough to smoke things are smoking glyphosate.
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Helen,there is not GMO weed or tobacco on the market. 
    Why not Steve? Why can't biotechnology be used to genetically modify tobacco? Why can't a GM tobacco or even a glysophate resistant tobacco be developed? Alcohol causes terrible health problems too, so does that somehow mean that biotechnology can't be used to genetically modify grapes and hops? Sugar causes terrible health problems but that hasn't stopped the development of GM beet and corn. I don't understand your logic about GM tobacco not being an option because tobacco causes cancer.

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Of course GM tobacco and GM marijuana could be produced. Steve is just saying it hasn't been produced yet. Reread what he said, and don't misquote him.

    sdsavage
    Helen,Biotech could be used to modify any crop, but someone has to be willing to spend millions to go through the regulatory process.  There is a perfectly good application of biotech for Cannabis - turn off the THC so that another compound in the plant can be used as an epilepsy treatment.  However, that might not be easy.  There was a little company in Hawaii in the 90s that was trying to develop coffee that didn't make caffeine so that you could have full flavor decaf.  They shut down various pathways, but the plant kept activating alternative routes.  It really wanted to make caffeine!
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    There was a little company in Hawaii in the 90s that was trying to develop coffee that didn't make caffeine so that you could have full flavor decaf.  They shut down various pathways, but the plant kept activating alternative routes.  It really wanted to make caffeine!
    That's interesting Steve, what's in it for the coffee plant to make caffeine anyway? Surely if a company could develop a much less carcinogenic tobacco that would be a big plus worth a hell of a lot of money?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    sdsavage
    Helen,Plants make chemicals like caffeine to ward off pests.  They can't run so they make chemicals.  We just happen to end up liking some of their effects (nicotine, THC, caffeine, capsaicin...).  Of course some of their pests evolve around such barriers.  Still, "Mother Nature" is the largest manufacturer of pesticides in the world
    Steve Savage
    If they know what enzymes in coffee produce caffeine, could they transfer the genes to a cotton plant? It could conceivably work as an insecticide.

    sdsavage
    Fred,Caffeine is made by a multi-step pathway so it wouldn't be a good candidate for normal transgenics.  There is an artificial chromosome technology out there that would allow someone to move many genes with their regulatory elements, but so far nothing with that seems to be in the commercial pipeline.  Bt proteins are the logical candidates for biotech insect resistance.  There are many of them to stack or vary for resistance management and they are non-toxic to anything but a few insects.
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat



    This world map of cigarettes smoked per capita from Washington Post's 40 maps that Explain the World illustrates that millions of people are still smoking and still will be for decades to come probably, so why aren't GM scientists and companies genetically modifying tobacco to be less harmful? Surely this would be a lucrative business and could reduce overall deaths and ill health, even if all inhaled smoke is harmful, some is less harmful than others. Even Marijuana has definitely been shown to have some positive medical health effects in the right situations and tobacco used to be prescribed by doctors to calm people's nerves.

    I was watching the British BBC TV program QI (QI standing for Quite Interesting and its definitely very amusing) the other day and apparently in London in the nineteenth century, the River Thames had emergency resuscitation stations along the river banks that contained bellows, tobacco and matches, which were to be used to resuscitate nearly drowned people from the river. Apparently the tobacco smoke was sucked into the bellows and pumped into the drowning person's anus and rectum! This was apparently the scientifically condoned, medical procedure for reviving drowning people in London at the time! Its no wonder that some of the public don't automatically trust everything that scientists and doctors tell us :)

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Thank you for the interesting discussion. Reading about genetically modified plants, I was speculating on what natural pesticide they would add to GM plants next. I noticed that most natural pesticides are not proteins, and I speculated on how you could get a GM plant to produce non-protein pesticides.

    I can see with trying to get a GM plant to produce caffeine, you would have to transfer multiple enzymes, which would be difficult. However I assume that the coffee plant had to evolve the enzymes one at a time, and each enzyme must have produced a product that was useful for the coffee plant. For instance theobromine is a precursor to caffeine, and theobromine is also a pesticide. You'd need to transfer one less enzyme to produce theobromine. I don't know if the precursor of theobromine is a pesticide. I also speculate there may be other pesticides that only need the transfer of one enzyme to get a plant to produce the pesticide.

    However, I think what you are telling me is that it is more cost-effective to produce new varieties of BT toxin than it is running around trying to produce all-new pesticides.

    Did you know that roundup ready coca plants are a thing now?

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.11/columbia.html

    Only a matter if time before we get roundup ready hemp/cannabis. With a fucking Monsanto patent to come along with it.

    sdsavage
    Clyde,Did you read the whole wired article?  The resistance to glyphosate in coca was a spontaneous mutation just like those that have occurred for several weed species.  There was no company involvement at all and no genetic engineering in a lab.  By the way, the patent for the CP4 EPSPS gene that enabled the Roundup Ready system was patented by an old friend of mine named Luca Comai from graduate school when he was working at the Biotech startup called Calgene.  It was certainly worth patenting because it isn't easy to come up with tolerance - it required two separate amino acid changes in different parts of the protein.  Luca did the logical thing and looked for resistant mutants in the EPSPS of a bacteria so he could sift through billions of cells to find the rare event.  Monsanto later bought Calgene which was the whole goal of the venture capitalists who funded it.  That patent is now expired, but it has made a major contribution to the environment by making it more feasible for farmers to farm with a no-till system.  If someone finds a line of cannabis that is glyphosate tolerant it will most likely be a spontaneous mutant as well
    Steve Savage