Cannabis research blooms in plant science department

Hemp plant
A hemp plant in a growing tent.

Since the announcement of a new course devoted to the cultivation of cannabis, the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture (PSLA) has received considerable attention. The class, Horticulture of Cannabis: From Seed to Harvest, developed by adjunct faculty member Matthew Debacco with assistance from Dr. Gerry Berkowitz, has put a spotlight on teaching the science behind growing the plant to meet strong student interest in a rapidly expanding industry. However, the course represents only one branch of the department’s flourishing academic focus on cannabis.

Several faculty members and students in PSLA are engaged in numerous cannabis-related research projects, including collaborations with local cultivators and producers. These research efforts are increasing cannabis knowledge for growers and the public domain through published research and presentations. These projects are bringing scientific inquiry to a plant that, for legal reasons, has remained largely unstudied by the academic community.

The passage of the 2014 US Farm Bill opened the door for institutions of higher education to grow or cultivate hemp for research purposes, allowing the department to bring rigorous science to the study of the plant. Industrial hemp (hemp) is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant recognized for its many uses, including fiber, food, biofuel and medicine.

Much of the research on and off campus involves studying the production and extraction of cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabinoid commonly used for therapeutic purposes. Cannabinoids are sets of complex compounds produced by cannabis, dozens of which are unique to the plant. Hemp is high in concentrations of CBD, but low in another notable cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive component in cannabis. The marijuana strains of cannabis have considerable THC content along with other genetic differences. Only hemp plants are used for research in Storrs and they are legally required to contain less than 0.3 percent THC content.

Gerry Berkowitz
Gerry Berkowitz.

Professor Berkowitz has been using the department’s research farm to study the field production of industrial hemp on a two-acre parcel while exploring methods of CBD extraction. These projects represent research partnerships with Connecticut-based companies seeking to increasing CBD production in their plants. CBD has generated a tremendous amount of interest for its medicinal uses. Last year, a new pharmaceutical using purified CBD was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat seizures associated with two severe forms of epilepsy. There are additional studies underway to investigate if CBD can effectively treat other pathologies. Berkowitz, a molecular geneticist, has also studied techniques to manufacture CBD without growing cannabis plants through a process that uses genetically engineered yeast and glucose.

Berkowitz is completing genetic research on cannabinoid production and biological pathways that can affect genes and the creation of other molecules. Along with graduate student Peter Apicella, he is also studying disease resistance and defense genes to learn more about how the cannabis plant handles pathogen infection.

Professor Yi Li is also conducting genetic research on hemp. Li is looking to employ new plant breeding technologies that can transform and improve plants.

Yi Li in lab
Yi Li.

“Until now, regeneration and transformation of cannabis plants have been difficult,” says Li. “We have been working on method development using a number of experimental tissue and non-tissue culture approaches. We hope we can create an efficient protocol in the near future.”

Li says the goal of this research is to conduct genome editing that can manipulate cannabinoid biosynthesis and other pathways to enhance CBD production, but block THC production in flowers, and to develop male-sterile cultivars of the cannabis plant. He has recently developed a new technique to use a genome-editing tool that can reliably create desirable traits in crop plants without introducing any foreign genes.

Hemp growers are also interested in cultivating female plants, since they produce the greatest amounts of cannabinoids. Associate Professor Jessica Lubell-Brand recently developed a procedure to produce seeds that only grow into female plants, which will be useful for commercial growers. Her work was published in HortTechnology this past December. Her future work will continue to focus on efficient cultivation of hemp.

“My industrial hemp research, in collaboration with Dr. Mark Brand, is focused on optimizing tissue culture micropropagation, development and evaluation of feminized seed for production of hemp and ploidy breeding for the development of new and improved industrial hemp germplasm,” says Lubell-Brand.

Tissue culture shoots of industrial hemp growing in the Lubell-Brand lab.
Tissue culture shoots of industrial hemp growing in the Lubell-Brand lab.

The research aims to help commercial cultivators and producers enhance propagation of their superior germplasm, as well as create resilient plants that possess desirable characteristics. Lubell-Brand’s research on industrial hemp is being supported by a grant from a Connecticut-based manufacturer and distributor of cannabis-derived medicinal products.

In addition to faculty member projects, PSLA undergraduates and graduate students are also conducting research on hemp.

Cora McGehee is a Ph.D. student working on characterizing plant diseases found in Cannabis sativa in controlled environment agriculture. Her research aims to help growers identify and prevent diseases. Her findings are currently under review for publication by a horticulture journal. She will also be collaborating with the Berkowitz team to evaluate how infection by plant pathogens affects CBD production.

Undergraduates continue to have the opportunity to conduct cannabis research in the department as well. Berkowitz advised over two dozen students in 2018 on hemp-related projects. Last year, eight students traveled to Montreal, Canada, to present their research findings at the American Society of Plant Biology’s annual national meeting.

Peter Apicella checks a hemp plant that is part of an experiment involving lactic acid bacteria
Graduate student Peter Apicella checks a hemp plant that is part of undergraduate Evert McKee III’s research involving applications of lactic acid bacteria.

Currently, undergraduate Evert McKee III is exploring the effects of lactic acid bacteria applications on the hemp plants. He obtained a grant from the UConn Office of Undergraduate Research to cover the cost of supplies for the project.

PSLA is also involved in research that seeks to evaluate hemp’s potential as a major agricultural commodity. Berkowitz is co-author of a multi-state research project sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). UConn is collaborating with several academic institutions to examine agronomic practices, assess crop quality, conduct genetic analyses and investigate the economic impacts and market potential of industrial hemp. Berkowitz is the Connecticut representative to the project. This is the first hemp research approved by the USDA.

The 2018 US Farm Bill further extended the research and study of hemp. While hemp is still a highly regulated commodity, the legislation allows for more small-scale cultivation and loosens some commercial restrictions regarding its sale and transportation. Continued research on hemp is crucial to learning more about the plant and its potential to be cultivated for a range of commercial products.

Students and faculty throughout PSLA are leading in the generation of new knowledge and, through scientific inquiry, helping to inform public discourse about issues relevant to society at large.

Berkowitz says, “It is incumbent upon us to contribute scholarship to a field where there is a paucity of publically available, peer-reviewed, refereed research. For too long, the horticulture of a high-value crop plant has been left to companies promoting their own products without impartial review. For too long, information obtained by the cannabis industry has not been openly shared in a public forum. We need to illuminate this area of plant science, and turn the light on in a room left dark for too long. If not now, when? If not here, at an academic institution, then where?”


By Jason M. Sheldon