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2023 Study: Cannabis Not The Only Botanical Species that Makes Cannabinoids

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

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Cannabis Not the Only Botanical Species that Makes Cannabinoids

For decades, the cannabis culture has endured a variety of urban legends that basically claim that the botanical species Cannabis sativa L (which encompasses marijuana and hemp) is not the only source of coveted cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).


And for decades, scientists have responded with a stern no, declaring cannabis as the sole source of the world's favorite lipid-based phytomolecules. In fact, think about the name: Cannabinoids come from cannabis (Latin club expats understand). Additional support for this stance is delivered by a well-respected March 2023 Brazilian study that described the situation quite clearly: "The biosynthesis of cannabinoid compounds is unique to Cannabis."

A mature cannabis plant.
Cannabis not only to produce cannabinoids.

2023 Study Rocks the Cannabinoid Boat

Cannabis Not The Only Botanical Species that Makes Cannabinoids. However, a groundbreaking study conducted in Israel and released in May of 2023 provides preliminary data that indicates that critical cannabinoids, including cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), may have evolved in a botanical species other than Cannabis sativa L. For cannabis science nerds, this is big news. These study data are particularly interesting because CBGA, an acidic precursor cannabinoid, is often dubbed the "mother of all cannabinoids." The study also identified five other cannabinoids that are produced by both cannabis and this totally separate plant species.


"A 2023 study indicates that critical cannabinoids, including cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), may have evolved in botanical species other than Cannabis sativa L."

This is due to the fact that, biochemically speaking, CBGA produces another set of important acidic precursors: Cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), cannabichromenic acid (CBCA), and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA). These acidic precursor "children," in turn, morph into the popular "neutral" or "active" cannabinoids CBD, cannabichromene (CBC), and delta-9 THC, respectively.

A chart showing how the acidic precursor CBGA produces other cannabinoids.
CBGA produced by many plants.

Parallel Evolution of Cannabinoid Production?

Cannabis Not The Only Botanical Species that Makes Cannabinoids. The study, entitled "Parallel Evolution of Cannabinoid Biosynthesis" that was published in the journal Nature Plants, explored the appearance of CBGA in a botanical species called Helichrysum umbraculigerum (H. umbraculigerum), a plant that is "unrelated to Cannabis sativa L" but that manufactures "Cannabis-type cannabinoids." In fact, the researchers found CBGA at a volume of 4.3 percent in trichomes residing on the leaves of this South African flowering plant that has the common name woolly umbrella and smells like curry.


"We have found a major new source of cannabinoids and developed tools for their sustained production, which can help explore their enormous therapeutic potential."

In a nutshell, the scientists theorize that the synthesis of cannabinoids in the botanical world evolved simultaneously (in parallel) in both Cannabis sativa L. and H. umbraculigerum. As evidence of this position, they identified 40 cannabinoids produced in the trichmome glands on the leaves of the woolly umbrella plants, including the six also found in cannabis mentioned above. The other 34 cannabinoids appear to be new varieties.


"We have found a major new source of cannabinoids and developed tools for their sustained production, which can help explore their enormous therapeutic potential," said study author Dr. Paula Berman, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, in a statement. "The next exciting step would be to determine the properties of the more than 30 new cannabinoids we've discovered and then to see what therapeutic uses they might have," she added.

A commercial greenhouse full of cannabis plants.
Major new source of cannabinoids discovered.

Cannabinoid Source Study Abstract

Cannabis Not The Only Botanical Species that Makes Cannabinoids. The brief abstract for this pioneering and disruptive research study appears below.


"Modulation of the endocannabinoid system is projected to have therapeutic potential in almost all human diseases. Accordingly, the high demand for novel cannabinoids stimulates the discovery of untapped sources and efficient manufacturing technologies.


"Here we explored Helichrysum umbraculigerum, an Asteraceae species unrelated to Cannabis sativa that produces Cannabis-type cannabinoids (for example, 4.3% cannabigerolic acid). In contrast to Cannabis, cannabinoids in H. umbraculigerum accumulate in leaves’ glandular trichomes rather than in flowers.


"Helichrysum umbraculigerum, or woolly umbrella, is a plant unrelated to Cannabis sativa that produces Cannabis-type cannabinoids (for example, 4.3% cannabigerolic acid)."

"The integration of de novo whole-genome sequencing data with unambiguous chemical structure annotation, enzymatic assays and pathway reconstitution in Nicotiana benthamiana and in Saccharomyces cerevisiae has uncovered the molecular and chemical features of this plant. Apart from core biosynthetic enzymes, we reveal tailoring ones producing previously unknown cannabinoid metabolites.

Wolly umbrella, which produces 40 cannabinoids.
Woolly umbrella produces 40 cannabinoids

"Orthology analyses demonstrate that cannabinoid synthesis evolved in parallel in H. umbraculigerum and Cannabis. Our discovery provides a currently unexploited source of cannabinoids and tools for engineering in heterologous hosts."


View the original study.

 

For more information about botanical sources of cannabinoids other than cannabis, see the Higher Learning LV study summary entitled "Scientists: Fungi, Liverworts, Rhododendrons, & Woolly Umbrella All Make Cannabinoids."

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