Unlocking the full potential of cannabis for agriculture and human health will require a coordinated scientific effort to assemble and map the cannabis genome, according to an international study [pdf] led by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

In a major statistical analysis of existing data and studies published in the Annual Review of Plant Biology, the authors concluded there are large gaps in the scientific knowledge of this high-demand, multipurpose crop. “Considering the importance of genomics in the development of any crop, this analysis underlines the need for a coordinated effort to quantify the genetic and biochemical diversity of this species,” the authors wrote.

The team found that less than 50% of the cannabis genome is accurately mapped, with about 10% of the genome missing, and another 10%–25% unmapped. “This means that we lack the foundation on which to build a molecular breeding program for cannabis comparable to what exists for other crops,” said lead author Tim Sharbel, a plant scientist in the USask College of Agriculture and Bioresources, in a university press release. “Developing a high-quality genetic blueprint would provide the building blocks for genomics-based breeding and applications to human and animal health while strengthening university-industry partnerships.”

The authors found, in the limited data that exists, support for the potential health benefits of cannabis, including treatments for pain, spasticity in multiple sclerosis, and opioid use reduction. The analysis also cites negative short-term effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, such as reduced cognitive function, enhanced anxiety, fatigue, and potential long-term consequences, such as permanent loss of memory, intelligence, mental focus, and judgment, as well as addiction.

The findings will serve as a cornerstone for various types of research conducted through the USask-led Cannabinoid Research Initiative of Saskatchewan (CRIS), said Sharbel. He noted that recent societal and governmental acceptance of cannabis has spurred growing interest by companies in medical applications of cannabis use.

“It is critical to recognize cannabis and cannabinoids as drugs with potential benefits and associated risks, as would be the case for the investigation of any novel drug,” the authors wrote.

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