A new study published in PLOS One has figured out what gives cannabis its distinct and tantalizing aroma. While researchers have known for a while that the herb contains an abundance of terpenes, aroma molecules found in plant resin. These aroma molecules give different cannabis strains their unique musky, pine, and fruity aromas. Now, researchers have uncovered just how cannabis produces so many of these flavorful chemicals.
Cannabis is a stand-apart plant for many reasons, and fragrance is certainly one of them. Now, researchers have a good glimpse into how the plant produces so many striking scents and tastes. According to the study, which was conducted at the University of British Columbia (UBC), there are at least,
30 terpene synthase genes that contribute to diverse flavors in cannabis. [These genes] play a role in producing natural products like limonene, myrcene, and pinene in the cannabis plants.
Limonene (lemon), myrcene (musk), and pinene (pine) are all common terpene aroma molecules found in the cannabis plant. With over 30 synthase genes, which enable cannabis to produce said terpenes, the variety of aromas, flavors, overall effects that the plant can produce are immense.
Interestingly, this study shows that the cannabis plant produces a similar amount of flavor molecules to the grapevine, which is essential for giving rich antioxidant flavors to aged wine.
In a media release from UBC, Jörg Bohlmann, a professor in the Michael Smith laboratories and faculty of forestry, explains why the University conducted this researcher. He states,
The goal is to develop well-defined and highly-reproducible cannabis varieties. This is similar to the wine industry, which depends on defined varieties such as chardonnay or merlot for high value products. Our genomics work can inform breeders of commercial varieties which genes to pay attention to for specific flavour qualities.
The study also happened to find the gene that creates a specific terpene, beta-caryophyllene, which engages some of the same cell receptors in the body as THC and CBD, the active cannabinoid molecules in the plant. Though, beta-caryophyllene does not cause a psychoactive high.
There has been a lot of recent discussion on how to properly classify cannabis strains. While the idea that cannabis comes in two primary types, indicas and sativas, reigns supreme in the industry today, genetic research such as this study suggests that the cannabis plant is far more complex than meets the eye.
Different strains may express different genes, which give individual cannabis plants their particular flavors. These flavor compounds also happen to work synergistically with cannabinoids (like psychoactive THC) to amplify medicinal effects.
This synergy is known as the “entourage effect”, and it is the reason why many find whole plant medicine preferable to some isolated cannabis extracts.
Understanding the genetic background for terpene expression has a variety of game-changing benefits.For one, this research opens the door to genetic modifications or more targeted cannabis breeding programs.
If a particular gene enables a plant to produce large amounts of myrcene, a musky terpene which is thought to contribute to the sedative qualities of cannabis, then it may be possible to use this genetic information to create strains with extremely specific medicinal effects.
Medical cannabis, however, is not the only reason why this information is so important. Cannabis is joining the ranks of wine, beer, coffee, and chocolate as a craft consumer good. To truly grow and appreciate the artistry behind a perfectly grown and cured cannabis bud, learning a little about terpenes is key.
If things continue in this direction, consumers may soon be able to pick up perfectly flavored cannabis with specific, tailored effects. It’s official, one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants has entered the future.