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The Pheno Project: Is it nature or nurture that makes the strain?

9LB Hammer is one of the strains that Jeremy Moberg cultivated at CannaSol Farms for his Pheno Project. (Courtesy CannaSol Farms)
9LB Hammer is one of the strains that Jeremy Moberg cultivated at CannaSol Farms for his Pheno Project. (Courtesy CannaSol Farms)
Tom Bowers EVERCANNABIS Correspondent
If you consume cannabis, you’ve probably experienced this scenario once or twice. You get home, open that jar of Blue Dream you just picked up, and it doesn’t taste like the Blue Dream you got last time – not even close. Maybe it isn’t Blue Dream at all. Or maybe this one is the real deal, and the strain you got last time was something else. Or perhaps they’re both Blue Dream, but just grew wildly different. But why? What makes cannabis vary between grower to grower, harvest to harvest, and plant to plant? How much of a killer bud’s character comes from nature, and how much from nurture? That’s a question that Jeremy Moberg, president of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association and owner of CannaSol Farms, hopes to illuminate with a new scientific cultivation competition he calls the Pheno Project. “I have heard some pretty wild claims about differences in plant profiles attributed to environment,” said Moberg. “Although I believe that there are conditions (under which) plants don’t really produce terpenes or cannabinoids, I have not seen in my experience a lot of variation in profiles in healthy productive plants.” In other words, Moberg says the jury is still out as to exactly what impact environment and methodology should have on finished product. Earlier this year, he enlisted the help of Terpene Transit to distribute identical clones of two separate strains – Blue Dream and 9LB Hammer – to 19 Washington cannabis farms. He asked those farms to cultivate those plants using their own methods, in order to shed some light on which variables contribute to the development of desirable and undesirable characteristics in the final product. “The reason why, is to determine the environmental impact,” Moberg said. “The genetic expression, and the phenotypical expression. What part does environment play?” The phenotypical expression, or phenotype, of a plant comprises its observable characteristics: appearance, smell, cannabinoid, terpenoid and flavonoid makeup. Whereas the genotypical expression – or genotype – of the plant is purely genetic and quantifiable using DNA testing, nailing down what contributes to a particular phenotype is trickier. Growers believe that cultivation techniques, environmental conditions, nutrient types and more have a significant impact on the resulting finished cannabis product. But in a new industry with scant historical research and measurable data, it’s hard to tell with empirical confidence exactly where that magic comes from. Moberg and the Pheno Project hope to use the scientific method to solve the mystery. “I expect that plants may produce more or less terps and cannabinoids from stress and other factors, but don’t really think that a plant’s terpene profile could be wildly different due to environmental factors,” Moberg said. “If we find out that there can be very different profiles within the same clones due to environmental conditions, then the whole concept of strains is out the door.” In other words, consumers who look to specific genetic strains (i.e., Northern Lights No. 5, Monster Cookies) and expect to find similar traits from grower to grower, may be surprised. The farms involved in the Pheno Project are each harvesting plants grown in a minimum of one set of methods, but some are experimenting with multiple combinations of soil, nutrient, and light. Each will log cultivation data and submit it along with the strains to the Project for analysis. The Pheno Project will then hold a competition and an event where results are announced in four categories: most diverse terpene profile, total terpene content, highest THC content, and total cannabinoid content. The Project enlisted the help of third-party testing laboratories Confidence Analytics and Medicine Creek to analyze the final strains. “We will be publishing a white paper with these results (sans any company names),” Moberg said. “We really encourage folks to do something different to some of their clones and see how that impacts the cannabinoid and terpene profiles. We had a couple of farms, including CannaSol, grow the strains in light deprivation and in full term. That should provide a great comparison of the methods.” In its first year, the Pheno Project is still a modest, regional event, Moberg says. He looks forward to watching it grow. “This project has great potential in future years to help growers better understand how inputs affect the quality of the product,” Moberg said. “I could see growers using the project to test different products and could see nutrient companies or lighting companies sponsor growers to use their product in a Pheno Project side-by-side. We hope that even more growers participate in future years.”
Tom Bowers left his life as a columnist for The Spokesman-Review in 2008 to seek his fortune in the world at large. He currently consults for the cannabis, beer, and recording industries as the founder and Managing Director of Propagate Consultants.
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