How Monsanto Could Take Over the Whole Cannabis Industry Overnight
Is That Really Sour Diesel? Scientist Takes On Weed’s Big Question
Using weed’s DNA, Mowgli Holmes has created the world’s largest genomic database of marijuana
By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
Dec 20, 2016 at 7:00 AM ET
Mowgli Holmes remembers when most people chuckled or cracked jokes about junk food when he told them that he spent his days untangling the genetic makeup of marijuana strains. Now, they’re quick to ask about his business model or whether the biotech company he started three years ago plans to expand beyond Oregon.
“You can talk to the most uptight bankers on the west coast, and they just want to know the numbers,” said Holmes, who grew up on a hippie commune in the state and holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Columbia University.
So here’s a few figures worth considering as you read on:
10,000: the number of years that humans have cultivated cannabis for their personal use.
$7.3 billion: the projected total sales of legal marijuana in the U.S. this year.
One: the total number of scientists charting an evolutionary map of marijuana.
A former HIV researcher, Holmes co-founded the startup Phylos Bioscience in Portland in 2014. He has since been on a quest to sequence the DNA of every kind of weed in the world, an effort that would provide an unprecedented platform for research into the plant. Part gonzo science and part biotech venture, this molecular-level work could help shape the future of an industry that soon stands to make more money than the NFL and is already the driving force behind one of the fastest changing social issues of our lifetime. It is almost certain to transform America’s favorite illicit drug in unimaginable ways.
“When we understand this plant better we’re going to be able to help breeders make absolutely crazy, wild weed,” said Holmes, 44. “There’s going to be cannabis around that would be unthinkable today.”
Anyone who has stepped into a dispensary in a legal cannabis state lately could be forgiven for thinking the future of marijuana has already arrived. The days of good weed or bad weed, indica or sativa, are long gone. Instead would-be buyers confront a gauntlet of ganja strains whose heady names and promised highs require a well-trained budtender to parse. Legal marijuana will soon be available for recreational use in eight states, including Holmes’ Oregon, and medical use in 21 more. That’s created steady work for scientists to lab test weed for THC levels or pesticides, or assist with extracting potent cannabis concentrates.
Yet few have applied modern genomic sequencing — the process of determining the precise order and makeup of an organism’s DNA, which has accelerated breakthroughs in agriculture and medicine — to marijuana. “It’s still quite an undeveloped species from the perspective of genetics,” Jonathan Page, a Canadian botanist credited with publishing the first paper with a draft sequence of a single cannabis strain, told Vocativ. Part of the reason is because marijuana remains federally illegal, which continues to limit academic research. Nor does a full genetic map of the plant and its thousands of variations exist at this time.
Phylos and its 17 full-time employees have been making headway since the biotech startup opened its doors in southwest Portland. Holmes and his team have worked to cobble together a collection of cannabis strains that spans centuries, continents, and much of the U.S. market. He’s captured rare, and sometimes ancient, specimens from museums and herbariums in Thailand, Colombia, and a dozen other countries. He’s coaxed weed breeders and private collectors — who amass seeds, clones and antique pot accoutrement like others might comic books or baseball cards — into providing samples from their personal stash. Meanwhile, hundreds of heady strains with names like Golden Pineapple, Sweet Island Skunk, and Humboldt OG trickle into Phylos from growers and dispensaries across the U.S.