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Micropropagation: a matter of (tissue) culture in cannabis cultivation

Mothers take up a lot of space and there is a lot of horticultural work required to keep it going

Instead of a cutting, micropropagation only needs a small portion of a shoot, leaf, stem or root Photo by _Vilor / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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    For generations, cannabis farmers have either let their plants get fertilized in the field and go to seed, or they opted to make clones (take cuttings) to create the next generation.

    Over time, however, the going-to-seed approach gave way to cloning as the preferred method for indoor black market growers. Not only was it quicker and required only moderate levels of sterilization, it offered a reproducible, standardized methodology to produce offspring from a single mother plant for generations that were identical, allowing growers to schedule fertilizer-feeding schedules and predict production. If mould or disease killed the mother plant, it would just be destroyed and replaced with a new varietal.

    Micropropagation: a matter of (tissue) culture in cannabis cultivation Back to video

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    Growers need a completely reproducible plant that expresses the same physical characteristics every single time. They want to know the plant they just harvested will require the same inputs to produce the same output in another three months time.

    This necessary sameness will help ensure the needs of the plant are met, the growth of the plant can be optimized and that production can be predicted. A difference in yield of two percent becomes critical when it is a 30,000 sq. ft. greenhouse involved and that two percent is multiplied thousands of times.

    Allowing for scale

    Photo: courtesy of Goya Ngan

    Like many of the processes crossing over from the black market—like pesticide and solvent use—cloning creates problems for the legal market. Licensed cultivators need a clean reproducible process that can scale up to the demands of hundreds of greenhouses, as well as create a standardized cannabis product for the market that can be certified to European (EU) Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards for export and domestic use.

    Massive operations, such as the planned Aurora Sun project that will occupy more than a million sq. ft. when completed, will require hundreds of starter plants a week to maintain production schedules.

    Enter large-scale, tissue culture propagation—using practices adopted from orchid farming. Orchids are typically very difficult to propagate by hand and, prior to 1950—when Gavino Rotor, a foreign student from the Philippines studying at Cornell University who pioneered the practices—large-scale greenhouse production was close to impossible. Experimentation in the 1980s and 1990s brought micropropagation into the mainstream, combined with the advancement of synthetic plant hormones.

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    Instead of a cutting, micropropagation only needs a fraction of the space and a small portion of a shoot, leaf, stem or root—even a single, undifferentiated cell suspended in a growth medium—to reproduce thousands of micro-plants. These micro-plants have another hormone applied to signal rooting and growth when they are ready to be matured.

    (One of the accepted protocols for cannabis micropropagation is based on the work of Malik and Saxena, published in 1992, who identified the ideal concretion of thidiazuron (TDZ) to use in the growth media. TDZ is a chemical that, at large doses, is used as a herbicide, but at low doses, inhibits plant growth while producing cytokininn-like response by way of inducing shoot formation.)

    Photo courtesy of Goya Ngan

    Anandia is one of the research and development-focused companies that has emerged in the space. The community is pioneering research into cannabinoids and contributing to Canada being a player in cannabis research, including into tissue culture propagation.

    Aurora Cannabis quickly noticed Anandia’s research focus. What started as a 20 percent stake from Aurora was formalized as a full acquisition this past summer, and Anandia CEO and co-founder Jonathan Page has since assumed the added duties of chief science officer for Aurora.

    Identifying fixes to traditional approaches

    Photo courtesy of Goya Ngan

    There are two fundamental problems with traditional horticulture methods, Page suggests. “The mothers take up a lot of space and there is a lot of horticultural work required to keep it going,” he says, explaining “that is space that could be turned into production space.”

    Practice only needs a fraction of the space and a small portion of a shoot, leaf, stem, root or even a single, undifferentiated cell to reproduce micro-plants ]]>