How does the cannabis plant actually produce cannabinoids?

Want to find out how marijuana makes cannabinoids? New study sheds light on the darkness

Marijuana wouldn’t be what it is today without the hundreds of cannabinoids it contains.

Cannabinoids are essentially chemical substances with different structures found in the plant. When cannabis is consumed, these cannabinoids bind to receptors located in the brain and body, resulting in the therapeutic effects we know cannabis for.

Researchers currently know about 100 cannabinoids plus 300 other non-cannabinoid chemicals found in the plant. However, the best-known cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is known for its psychoactive properties, while CBD has the opposite effect, although both have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, as well as other important health benefits.

We also know that these cannabinoids play an evolutionary role: the THC that grows on the trichomes helps protect the marijuana plant from herbivores, insects, pests and frost in colder climates, and reduces water loss when the plants are on windy locations. Additionally, they help attract pollinators while preventing overheating in arid habitats.

But until now, scientists weren’t sure how the plant actually produces these important chemicals.

A brand new study by plant biologists from the University of British Columbia has just revealed the processes used by the cannabis plant to produce THC and CBD. This is fascinating research for consumers and plant lovers, but especially for biotech companies trying to synthesize THC and CBD in the lab.

“This really helps us to understand how the cells in cannabis trichomes can expel massive amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and terpenes; Compounds that are toxic to plant cells in high amounts—without poisoning themselves,” says study leader and botanist Dr. Sam Livingston from the University of British Columbia.

To learn how cannabis produces cannabinoids, Dr. Livingston and his study co-author, Dr. Lacey Samuels, the rapid freezing of glandular trichomes in marijuana to keep cellular metabolites and structures in situ. This process allowed them to examine the glandular trichomes with electron microscopes, showing them the cellular structure at the nano level. They saw that the metabolically active cells formed a super cell, which then acted as a small factory for cannabinoids.

This shed further light on the processes cannabis uses to create products from its own raw materials without creating waste or toxins.

“This new model can inform synthetic biology approaches for cannabinoid production in yeast, which is routinely used in biotechnology. Without these “tricks” they will never achieve efficient production,” he says.

“For more than 40 years, everything we thought about cannabis cells was inaccurate because it was based on outdated electron microscopy,” adds Dr. Added Samuels. “This work defines how cannabis cells make their product. It’s a paradigm shift after many years, bringing about a new perspective on cannabinoid production. This work has been challenging, partly due to legal prohibition and also due to the fact that no protocol for genetic transformation of cannabis has been published,” he says.

Why this matters

Marijuana is the only plant known to man that can produce THC.

Despite this, we cannot use marijuana to produce large amounts of THC or other cannabinoids on an industrial scale. THC is produced in the plant’s trichomes, so its leaves, stalks, and stems are essentially no longer useful in this regard.

However, with the advent of genetic engineering, we might find more efficient solutions to this. Many biotechnology companies are looking for ways to produce genetically enhanced or modified THC for the pharmaceutical industry. There are also those involved in the industry of genetically modifying cannabis cells to greatly increase their yield.

Ultimately, these companies are working to produce cannabinoids at a more efficient scale without costing too much money. Growing plants traditionally would cost too much and just take too much time, and producing high-quality synthetic cannabis-based medicines can help save thousands of lives while we wait for cannabis to be legalized at the federal level. Take Epidiolex for example; The drug was approved for use and distribution in the United States through June 2018. The FDA approved the use of Epidiolex for Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, two severe but rare forms of epilepsy, in patients 2 years and older.

Marinol, a THC-based drug, was approved by the FDA in 1985 to treat vomiting and nausea in cancer patients and anorexia in AIDS patients.

While Marinol, Epidiolex, and other artificial cannabis-based medications can provide relief for a small group of patients, nothing beats the use of natural whole-plant remedies. Pharmaceutical cannabis medications offer relief, but they don’t contain the other therapeutic compounds found in the marijuana plant; Even when researchers figure out how to make these in the lab, it will take a long time.


Understanding how the marijuana plant works to produce its vital and therapeutic cannabinoids is another fascinating discovery in the world of plant medicine.

It can be helpful for biotech and pharmaceutical companies trying to increase production of cannabinoids to develop drugs. However, at the end of the day, whole plant marijuana still works best. Unfortunately, while marijuana is still a Schedule 1 substance and federally illegal, the plant won’t have as wide a reach as these FDA-approved manmade drugs.




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