Phylos Bioscience Sees Big Picture in All the Little Things
By David Heldreth
Cannabis research company offers DNA breeding services across the country.
When people imagine marijuana they see Cheech and Chong standing among a field of big, green plants. Perhaps those more familiar with marijuana may visualize the enormous greenhouse facilities popping up across Washington, California and other cannabis-friendly states. However, the face of the industry may soon be a group of scientists in lab coats, studying some of the smallest molecules in living organisms.
Phylos is among a small group, including Steep Hill and Medicinal Genomics, currently studying the DNA of the marijuana plant around the globe. What sets them apart from their peers is that they’re putting the data to work. The Phylos Galaxy is the centerpiece of that work. The galaxy is a 3-dimension visualization: Imagine the night sky with each star being a strain, representing the interconnectedness of the hundreds of varieties the company has sequenced. Phylos chief strategy officer Nishan Karassik said the level of overlap between the strains surprised even those in the company.
“Our name comes from phylogeny,” Karassik said. “We expected to be able to form a phylogenic tree, but as we got our results the data spoke for itself. The galaxy was born.”
The Phylos Galaxy is already starting to bear fruit. Developing a system for naming and identifying varieties of cannabis similar to other agricultural commodities has long been a dream of researchers and breeders. The main problem is a lack of a consensus on what exactly is an OG or a Sour Diesel strain. This problem can be seen in duplicate DNA or clones submitted into the galaxy with different names. Some strains such as OG have huge clusters of “stars” in the galaxy due to this problem. Phylos has allowed growers to edit the name they originally submit as they get more data on related strains.
“The system seems to be self-cleaning, almost,” said Phylos cofounder and geneticist Mowgli Holmes, PhD. “As people get the information they’re applying it. The data is driving the way they name the varieties.”
Holmes said developing that pile of data took a long time and led to many relationships.
“We had to sequence a lot of plants for free to get the data we use now,” Holmes said. “Without a database or something to compare against what use is a genetic test?”
While the galaxy is important to be able to visualize the bulk data, the reports the company provides with their genome tests (think 23andMe) are tailored for the individual breeders. The reports identify the lineage of the strain tested, what subgroups, such as hemp, it’s most related to, how rare the genetic variety is and the stability or homozygosity of the strain. They also provide a list of strains that are the most dissimilar from the variety submitted, allowing breeders to identify an uncommon hybrid possibility.
Phylos is also able to determine the sex of a plant within the first weeks of its life. Sex tests can help growers keep males from pollinating a production crop and reduce expenses spent keeping a male plant alive. The company’s unique sex test was developed to allow growers to submit DNA without transferring any tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or other prohibited material. The test revolves around the cotyledon—the first pair of round water leaves—which are clipped around two weeks from germination. The cotyledon leaves are smeared against a card and don’t contain trichomes or THC. The Phylos genome test uses a similar system to obtain samples involving a piece of stem from a plant that has been cleaned with alcohol to remove any trichomes or THC.
Sex and genetic identity tests are the cutting edge of cannabis science, but Phylos is working to push the industry to the next level. In March, scientists at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, analyzed the Finola hemp variety and discerned the DNA sequences related to terpene synthases. Holmes said researchers from Phylos were working on ways to use the data from that and other research to develop new tests for things such as yield, pest resistance and male potency. Here’s hoping this is just one step in a long march toward a better understanding of the cannabis plant.
Phylos is heavily involved with the industry and community beyond their test offerings. The company helped the Willamette Weekly host and test samples for the Cultivation Classic—a competition for OMRI-certified cannabis on May 12. (Results and more from the Cultivation Classic can be found on the Cannabiz Journal website) Holmes is also on the board of directors of the Open Cannabis Project and Cannabis Safety Institute.