The benefits of in-house genetics programs for medical cannabis production – Part 1. Setting & Methodology

Lack of research and development under prohibition has put us behind. How do we catch up?

Key Takeaways

  • In an industry with compressing margins and commoditizing products, cost control, risk management and IP creation are of paramount importance.
  • A comprehensive genetics program has the ability to increase yields and microbial resilience, build proprietary IP that addresses particular market segments, and better understand their production process from seed to sale.


Cannabis prohibition has left a long-lasting mark on cannabis, as a plant, as a sector, in our practices, knowledge-base, and consequent expectations. Few terms are more mystified than ‘genetics,’ ‘strain,’ or ‘cultivar’. The mystification of these terms catalyses an intangible expectation of an unadulterated nature, the promise of an immutable essence capable of delivering mind, body and health benefits.

Marketeers have co-opted these expectations to create marketable categories. We have a plethora of branded cultivar names, from various seed-banks, intended to invoke a strong association in the buyer/end-user to a specific chemotaxonomic profile for the phenotype. Assuming the starting material is of the appropriate genotype, how do we ensure that the correct phenotype is developed, grown and harvested from that starting material?

Cannabis Strain Naming

In practice, we need to be a little more cynical to achieve desired results. Seeds under the name, for example, ‘Amnesia Haze’ bought from different seed banks will grow to look, taste, smell and burn very differently. Individual cannabinoid, terpene and flavonoid profiles will vary significantly between themselves. The reason is a lack of control and a lot of accidental (and non-detected) cross contamination between strains. Lack of transparency, poor protocols and legacy mindsets amongst breeders are at the root of genetic accidents. Think of everyday accidents, for instance, the breeder wasn’t aware that pollen was stuck to the t-shirt he wore in 5 separate breeding rooms. Chance has always been at the core of natural selection!

Passionate and talented growers and breeders will always find creative ways to get the best possible phenotypes out of the starter genetic material. However, medical cannabis facilities (operating under pharmaceutical standards) as well as more nuanced medical and IP reasons refocus our attention on genetic integrity and stability. A phenotype is a product of its genetics (starter material) and its environment (cultivation practices). Both aspects are critical to the outcome.

This is where the benefits of an in-house genetics program could solve a lot of issues. There are several different options to execute depending on the infrastructure of the specific facility.

One option is to purchase genetics (starter material) at a very high cost. They would have typically undergone a strict selection and development process to ensure that the initial seeds are of the correct genetic make up and free of pathogens. Suppliers of genetics and their Quality Systems are not created equal. Relying on external sources for starting genetic material presents, to various degrees, financial uncertainty, production risks and opportunity costs.

But how can medical cannabis producers achieve the same results in-house? What are the most important things to consider when selecting? And how do we avoid viruses and bacteria? Which methodology can be used to secure unadulterated genetic lineage?

In one question, how do we breed the best genetics, consistently, for a given environment/goal?

Starter Material

When purchasing starter material (seeds) it’s important to have the material PCR tested even though they have been cleared already. This is to make sure the material is in fact free of virus, bacteria, and pathogens even after shipping/transport.

Casting a wide net

Once we ensure that the seeds are in good health, the first selection process begins, where the seeds are germinated to seedlings. Numbers matter here. It is advisable to cast a wide net, starting with a critical volume of seeds. We recommend using a minimum of 100-200 seeds for every selection cycle. We want to capture a wide phenotypic expression of the starting genome. Cannabis contains hundreds of different cannabinoids in different ratios controlled by certain gene expressions. Our goal is to select the phenotypes that most closely satisfy our starting criteria. Finding the correct phenotype can be very time consuming – but will reward you with the exact phenotype you desire as an outcome.

First selection: Looking for health

After approximately 14 days starts the next phase of the process, which consists of visual inspections following certain selection criteria. Rejection criteria at this stage may include long and thin stems, leaf deformities, slow growth and much more. This phase is crucial to remove any genetics exhibiting undesirable vegetative traits. After another 7 days the final visual selection is done on the current batch. We should be left with 10-20 plants, depending on the starting point. (Plants selected for the next phase of evaluation should account for no more than 10% of starter material – It is crucial to be critical!)

Winners turning to mother plants for further pheno hunting

From the 10-20 selected plants, 5-10 clones will be selected from each. These clones will be grown to flowering stage, harvested and analysed very thoroughly (full chemical profile). Ability to trace each batch back to its starting mother and seed is crucial for the selection, labelling is therefore critical. Flowering would typically be induced about 14 days after transplantation

This phase is particularly important to further select phenotypes with the appropriate morphological characteristics, extending to the flowering stage. We are looking for flower density, pistil morphology, leaf production & exfoliation needs and others. We are further judging growing patterns and needs, aromas, colour schemes etc. It is important to keep in mind that, implicitly, the whole selection process happens against the average environmental conditions present in the cultivation area.

For most medicinal purposes cannabis is used for cancer patients, epilepsy, neuropathic pains etc. and therefore breeding for one or more of the following terpenes would be beneficial. (These are examples of terpenes. Others could also be used.)

  • Caryophyllene which is also found in herbs like basil, oregano and cinnamon leaves and has reported medical purposes such as, anti-inflammatory, sleep aid and pain relief.
  • Terpinolene which is also found in rosemary and sage and works as a sedative and is said to have tumour preventative qualities.

Final Selection

The final selection stage is initiated after 7-12 weeks depending on the flowering time of the specific cultivar and phenotype.

This step is all about analysis, yield (wet and dry weight), water content, drying and curing needs, cannabinoid profiles, terpene ratios and much more. Final selection is the result of a function that takes into account all data points gathered on a particular phenotype (it can and should include meta-data such as processing time and workload for the final product). Leading to a selection of 1-5 different phenotypes. Each selected phenotype then goes through 3 growing cycles to demonstrate stability over time.

Once the data is gathered, the final production material is being selected. One or two phenotypes nearest to the starting goals are chosen. Those plants will be the beginning of a new production line.

Visual Summary