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Cannabis & Main: 'Do Strain Names Mean Anything?'

In this episode of Civilized's new podcast 'Cannabis & Main,' host Ricardo Baca spoke with Dr. Reggie Gaudino, Chief Science Officer for Steep Hill, a leading cannabis science company with an eye towards lab testing, research and development, licensing, genetics, and remote testing. Ricardo and Reggie talked about the strides made in marijuana genetics in the last few decades, where the science is going and what it means for the industry. 

Check out the full podcast below or download it for free through iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher.

Transcript: 'Cannabis & Main' Episode 105, “Cannabis & DNA”

Ricardo Baca: Today my guest is Reggie Gaudino, the chief scientific officer and director of intellectual property at Steep Hill. Reggie, how's it going?

Reggie Gaudino: Good, thanks. Thanks for having me.

Ricardo Baca: Today we're here to talk about cannabis DNA. Just to get some vocabulary out of the way, genos, phenos, can you just break those down quickly for the layman listening?

Reggie Gaudino: The genotype is the actual DNA code. You can't see a genotype. It's invisible. And it's often unreliable in terms of trying to pick a single gene to predict a phenotype. Because sometimes you have a combination of genes that come together, and that combination gives you a phenotype.

Ricardo Baca: Oh.

Reggie Gaudino:  Phenotype is the actual physical expression. It's what you see, what you can touch, what you can feel, measure.

Ricardo Baca:  Tell me, how does this ... Why should your average cannabis consumer care about cannabis DNA?

Reggie Gaudino: Ah. That's a great question. Words like sativa, indica, you know, hybrid ... Can I use bad words?

Ricardo Baca:  Oh, yeah.

Reggie Gaudino:  All right. Mean dog shit. It means absolute dog shit. In the old days, something that was an indica typically was an indica because it had a combination of growth characteristics and chemical properties that were unique to that variety. Indicas are typically short and bushy. They have short inter-node length. They tend to have more purpling, because they tend to grow in more extreme environments: the Himalayas, or that kind of stuff. And typically had a chemical profile that meant something. In the old days, indicas were the couch lock, make you sleepy, stoner kind of weed. And typically, sativas were associated with a very forebrain, uplifting, energetic high. Now you can see things that look like indicas, but give you a sativa chemical profile. Right now, the terms indica and sativa mean absolutely nothing. What's left?

Ricardo Baca: Sure.

Reggie Gaudino: Do strain names mean anything? What does the name, Alaskan Thunderfuck tell you about the plant, or Cat Piss, or Baby Shit, or any of those? Where'd these people get these fucking names, dude? It's like, give me a break. But that's what we're dealing with. That tells you nothing about the plant, too. Now we have no use for indica. We have no use for sativa. And we have no use for most of the strain names. What is a consumer supposed to do?

Reggie Gaudino: Right now the best tool that will be available to get at the identity of a plant are going to be the genetics and the chemical profile, but only if the genetics and the chemical profile are linked through a locked set of growing conditions.

Ricardo Baca: But that still seems like a really long way away. Am I wrong? I mean, given the current infrastructure of how we buy and consume and grow cannabis ...

Reggie Gaudino: Well, this is where I'm gonna get unpopular again. It's not as far away as we think, and it's going to involve good GNP, GLP practices. And it's going to involve indoor control grows.

Ricardo Baca: Uh-oh.

Reggie Gaudino: Oh, here we go. If you want to look like pharmacy, you have to act like pharmacy.

Ricardo Baca: Sure.

Reggie Gaudino: Okay? An outdoor grow is, by definition, outdoor, uncontrolled. So at no point will you ever be able to guarantee the output of that. If you are an outdoor grower, you may make phenomenal product, but you can't guarantee to your customer that the product will be the same after every cycle. Can't. It's ten degrees hotter this year than last year. Guess what? You have different chemical profile. In fact, we've got data that shows ... I've got data that I've developed where I can show just differences in lights can change the chemical profile, the terpene output. Imagine ... And we've, actually, now, got the same grower growing the same genetics in their indoor grow and outdoor grow and we're seeing vast differences in the terpene profile in the indoor and outdoor grows.

Ricardo Baca: Sure.

Reggie Gaudino: How do you control that? Well, you control that by bringing it indoors, having an SOP. I know people hate that word in the cannabis industry, but you need a standard operating procedure ...

Ricardo Baca: It's necessary for business.

Reggie Gaudino: Where you grow the same thing the same way all the time. Now, we are looking at a situation where a customer who needs a specific thing can be guaranteed they get that specific thing. And we're not that far away because we have a lot of ... There's a lot of LPs here in Canada, and there's some larger growers that are coming up around the United States, where they're doing exactly that. Where they're bringing it indoors, they're investing in the infrastructure to be able to have controlled humidity, make sure that the lumens per square inch or whatever, however they measure that, is the same everywhere on the plant. You don't want ...

Reggie Gaudino: Going to sea of green to minimize lighting effect. Here's something that came out of the industry early on. Different parts of the plant are different. If you grow a whole plant as opposed to a sea of green, just clones one foot or two foot tall for colas, what you see is a stratification of the plant. The top of the plant gets the juiciest, most crystal-y buds. The bottom of the plant gets crap. You can see a 10-12% percentage point difference, 25% at the top, 13% at the bottom kind of thing in a plant, Indoor or outdoor, grown without the proper consideration.

Reggie Gaudino: Changing the way we do things will help steady the supply and give us more consistency in the supply. But, again, that then takes us away from the craft, artisanal guy who was the outdoor grower, who his entire generation before him did it that way, and he's taking over Dad's business. It's not gonna happen. We're not gonna get consistency that way. We're gonna get great artisanal craft. Now that brings us to another aspect of the industry, which is appellations. The idea of creating these appellations like the wine industry does. Well, guess what? It's a very similar plant to the wine industry, because it's a terpene-based plant. It's a terpene-rich plant.

Ricardo Baca: Sure. Absolutely.

Reggie Gaudino: We want to get those variations. Those little changes do affect the quality and the varietal kind of nature.

Ricardo Baca: Yeah, the personalities, without a doubt.

Reggie Gaudino:  Exactly. In the grand scheme of things, if, for the medicinal side, for the consistency side, you need one thing. But for the beauty and the historical part of the industry, you need that craft artisanal grower as well, who is going to do things using living soil instead of aquaculture, who's going to be using natural sunlight and going to have natural variations, and can manipulate his soil to produce things as well.

Ricardo Baca: I gotta ask you, though. You're talking about indica, sativa, it's dog shit. In many cases, strain names are meaningless. In the modern economy, it doesn't matter if you're buying from a bike messenger in Manhattan or a licensed shop in Sacramento. What would you recommend to a consumer who wants to be responsible?

Reggie Gaudino:  An educated consumer, the best customer, is somebody who has done a little homework and says, "Oh. You know what? I've smoked this. It has ... I look at the lab report." Ooh, right? "And it says that it has this much linalool. Well, I liked it 'cause it made me feel relaxed." Well, guess what? If you look at what linalool does, linalool is actually one of the main ingredients in lavender. What do we use lavender for? For calming, for rest, for those things. These terpenes that we have in cannabis are actually the same terpenes that we have in a lot of other plants.

Ricardo Baca: Sure.

Reggie Gaudino: And we use a lot of other plants for: lemongrass, chamomile, all of these things. It just so happens that cannabis has the genes for a lot of these other plants that make the same compounds. You can get a really good understanding by being a responsible consumer who asks for a lab report. Show me what you got. Does it have microbes in it? Am I gonna get sick from smoking it? Does it have pesticides in it? And, better yet, what's the level of the things that I'm interested in? How much THC? How much CBD? Does it have a varin in it? 'Cause I know that varins may help me control my munchies, or these things. A lab report is really the consumer's best friend. But here's the problem: a lot of dispensaries don't want to give out lab reports. They don't want you to see. I think there's got to be an adoption by more dispensaries on this. Stay away from meaningless names and get more to the bitty gritty. And I've been very heartened by some of the dispensaries in California because they're all on that same bandwagon. I'm not exactly sure it's for all the right reasons. Some of it may be because, okay, well, all of the stuff at 30% THC flies off the shelves, but the stuff at 22% THC doesn't.

Ricardo Baca: Right.

Reggie Gaudino: How do we sell that? Well, let's play up the terpenes. Well, guess what? In my opinion, I've smoked some stuff that's 18%, with a lot of terpenes, that's blown me away, and stuff that's 30% ... I have some stuff that's 30% right now I'm not impressed with at all, because it has ...

Ricardo Baca: Sure.

Reggie Gaudino: Genetics. Plants. It's a closed-loop system.

Ricardo Baca:  Just like the regulatory compliance system.

Reggie Gaudino: There you go. There you go. Energy in equals product out. You can't change that unless you change the plant at the DNA level. This is where we get into the nitty gritty about why that works. If you have a certain amount of energy and you have certain things that have to be done in the plant, the more you try to make it do one thing, the less it'll do of everything else. The plant that has 30% and 4% terpenes, very rare. Most plants that come in around 28-32% have a very narrow terpene profile: one or two major terpenes that you can measure. As the THC percentage goes down, you see that more of the terpenes become measurable. Because at the end of the day, you can only make so much stuff that's not life-giving. You still have to make roots and shoots and leaves and all this other stuff. Well, if you get to 30% of anything, you're going to reduce the capacity to make anything else.

Reggie Gaudino: How do you fix that? How do you get to the place where the growers want to be? I want 45% cannabinoids. Well, you do that by rebuilding the plant from the ground up. You re-engineer the plant. And you can do that any number of ways. You can do it by GMO methods, but you don't have to. We have marker-assisted breeding that allows us to do things that are not focused on the wrong things. Everybody in the industry, more THC, more THC. Why? Because that's what sets the price. Well, that's the wrong way to look at this. Who cares what the price is, really, if it's not doing the right thing. If it's not doing the right thing and nobody wants to buy it 'cause it's not fun, how much money are you really gonna make?

Reggie Gaudino: What we do is, yeah, I've mapped all the terpene genes and the cannabinoid genes. I've cloned most of them and all sorts of other stuff. But the reality is is that those are the minor things. Those are the final products that ultimately we want, but that's not the important part of the plant. The important part of the plant is the actual basal metabolic capacity. If you can make a plant that does everything better, then you're going to get more of what you want. Instead of focusing on THC and CBD or the terpenes, what we should be focusing on biomass genes, flowering genes, the clock genes that turn on and turn off the processes that we want. If we raise the basal capacity of the plant, then it'll do everything at a higher level. If we start to play with the flowering, we can get an earlier flowering cycle and a later senescent cycle. Because when do we make THC? We don't make THC through the whole life cycle of the plant, we make it in the flowering cycle in the trichomes. That means that if you can make the plant flower earlier and stay in flower longer, you should theoretically, if everything else being equal, make more THC.

Ricardo Baca: Sure.

Reggie Gaudino: And if you boost the basal level of that up as well, now the plant overall is healthier and makes more of everything.

Ricardo Baca: Can you tell us ... Maybe give us one or two terpenes that you might recommend if somebody is looking for that downer experience to kind of escape into the couch, maybe for sleep. And maybe a terpene that they might ask their local bud tender for for that uplifting, energetic experience, since that's a more forward, future-looking, correct way of talking about cannabis.

Reggie Gaudino: From chemical profiling, we actually do understand that there are certain terpenes that seem to be more prevalent in those things that have a more sedentary effect, like the former indicas, linalool being one of them. It's interesting. Myrcene is present in a large proportion of cannabis that we look at today. Again, probably because of the way things travel together, and looking for high THC, myrcene came along. Myrcene is a very important terpene because a lack of myrcene means that you have to have more THC to get the same effect. So one thing that everybody should be looking for is well-grown and well-cured bud. This is where terpene profile actually helps you. What we've also discovered is that as cannabis ages or is improperly cured, it changes the natural ratio of terpenes and it actually ... This is a thing for the industry. Some of the data that we're coming up with right now we're getting ready to publish suggests that there may be not one size fits all curing regime. Think about this. Cannabis that has a lot of heavy oil, a lot of heavy terpenes, will cure at a different rate than cannabis that has a lot of mono-terpenes, or light terpenes that blow off really easily.

Ricardo Baca: Totally makes sense.

Reggie Gaudino: Now we understand that there are these main categories of cannabis that are based on their primary and secondary terpenes, so now the industry has to evolve again. We have to start understanding these things so that we can actually produce better cannabis that is unique to that particular variety or group of varieties because they have a particular chemical profile. Given that, what a consumer really wants to make sure is that you're not looking at old cannabis. If it's got low terpenes, or especially low myrcene, typically it's old, dry. Okay? You want there to be a reasonable amount of myrcene in it. And if you want the more sedentary effect, you want those things that will have linalool and terpinolene. And the other things that are more uplifting, like the sativa-like things are the limonene, the alpha-pinene, the beta-caryophyllene, those things are the ones that give you the more uplifting forebrain experience.

Ricardo Baca: All right.

Reggie Gaudino: Those are the things that we actually see in terms of the old-school monikers of indica and sativa. When you look at things in a blind manner, and you just go ... Okay. The way we did this was, we've done a lot of testing for various hemp cups and High Times Cup and that kind of stuff.

Ricardo Baca: Sure.

Reggie Gaudino: Interestingly enough, when those things come in, they come in blinded to strain. And all they ask the producer is, "What is an indica, sativa, or hybrid?" When we get the data like that, we treat it like that. And we then use those colloquial categories to actually say, "Okay. Given what the industry understands, okay, what does this means in terms of the chemical profile?" And we actually found that even that way, we could find those true differences based on some of the terpenes that we looked at. Now, when you take that and you then go back and try to use that as a predictive model, that's where we started to get into some problems. Certain things fit the model. But certain other things that we considered as sativa-dominant hybrids, like Gorilla Glue, are actually, when they come out in their chemical profile, are really very indica-like, right? And Blue Dream, which people seem to think is a real neutral hybrid, is actually not a real neutral hybrid. And it's actually ... Blue Dream's kind of interesting. It has that calming effect that you would associate with certain of the indica-like terpenes, but if you look at the profile, it's got a lot more of the sativa-like terpenes.

Reggie Gaudino: And this is why we started the conversation with, names don't mean anything. Indica and sativa don't really mean anything anymore. So you have to have an understanding of the chemical output of that particular batch on that particular day. And this gets back to testing is the consumer's best friend. And it's the worst enemy for those people who are not good actors in the industry.

Ricardo Baca: There you go.

Reggie Gaudino: Because I have the power now to catch people who change the names of strains. We just did it.

Ricardo Baca: Sure.

Reggie Gaudino: When we do nearest neighbor analysis of our database, I found somebody, and it was somebody, 'cause it was, when we traced it back it was the same producer, sold the same strain under three different names. And how do I know? Because the chemical profiles were exactly the same for all three different strains.

Ricardo Baca:  And I think that's more common than anybody has any idea, unfortunately.

Reggie Gaudino: Right. But do you see what it does to the industry? Now you have a bunch of people who, "Oh. Let me try that strain." Well, that strain is no different. So now they've just wasted their time in their quest to find what works for them. Because there are a few bad actors who, when they realize they can't sell that bud anymore, they change the name.

Ricardo Baca: It's a black eye. And, frankly, this industry doesn't need any more black eyes. I love that as a scientist, you're saying testing is a consumer's best friend. And, certainly, as a journalist, I can say that as well. We were talking before we started taping about our studies researching the potency of various edible products as well as the pesticide composition of some of these extracts and concentrates. But regardless, learned a lot here today. Everybody, thank you so much. Reggie Gaudino, chief scientific officer and director of intellectual property at Steep Hill, I am so appreciative that you joined us here.

Reggie Gaudino: Thank you.

Ricardo Baca: And shared all of this with us. Thank you again.

Reggie Gaudino: Thank you for having me. I often wonder why people actually want to listen to me, 'cause I just ramble on. But thanks anyway.

Ricardo Baca: No way. All valuable stuff. Thanks again.

Reggie Gaudino: Thank you.


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