Scientists Identify The Genes Responsible For Cannabis' Distinct Flavor

It is hoped that by finding the right genes, it could help breeders produce more uniform varieties. Eric Limon/Shutterstock

Josh Davis 31 Mar 2017, 17:59

Researchers are attempting to decode exactly what it is that gives marijuana its distinctive, fragrant taste. In a study published in PLOS One, scientists have managed to single out a series of genes that could one day help breeders home in on and standardize particular flavors and smells of cannabis.

The researchers compare their work of decoding cannabis flavors to the expansive wine industry, which is built around recognizable tastes that can be replicated. “This is similar to the wine industry, which depends on defined varieties such as chardonnay or merlot for high value products,” explains Jörg Bohlmann, a professor at the University of British Columbia, in a statement. In fact, the number of genes responsible for the taste of cannabis is indeed comparable to the number responsible for the taste in grapevines.

Much of the scent of marijuana is dictated by certain compounds known as monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, and as such are also thought to contribute to the distinct flavors of the plant when consumed. While much research goes into the active compounds that give the high as well as others that give the medicinal qualities of cannabis, little has been done to look into these other molecules. These compounds are generally known in the industry simply as terpenes.

In light of that, the researchers of this latest study analyzed the genome of cannabis plants in the hunt for the genes that give them their characteristic tastes. They managed to identify roughly 30 terpene synthase genes that are thought to contribute to the unique bouquet experienced.

The specific genes that they were able to decode were found to play a role in producing molecules such as limonene, myrcene, and pinene, which are already known to add the fragrant smell and taste of the plant. “The limonene compound produces a lemon-like flavor and myrcene produces the dank, earthy flavor characteristic of purple kush,” says co-author Judith Booth.

Interestingly, the research looking into the flavor genes might not only have relevance to how the different strains of marijuana taste, but also to how strong their medicinal properties are. They have managed to find one gene, for example, that produces a terpene known as bete-caryophyllene. This molecule not only contributes to the taste, but also interacts with the cannabinoid receptors on our cells. The researchers suggest that this might therefore influence the medicinal value.

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