Pubdate: Wed, 20 Apr 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: John Markoff


SAN FRANCISCO - Think of it as the consumer buying guide of the future.

On Wednesday, Phylos Bioscience, an Oregon biotechnology start-up, 
will begin offering an online interactive guide that visually 
portrays the genetic relationships of almost 1,000 types of cannabis, 
otherwise known as marijuana.

The resulting visualization will offer anyone the ability to easily 
travel in cyberspace through a three-dimensional projection of the 
genetic information drawn from sequencing samples of the plant, which 
is increasingly being legalized for medical and recreational use in 
states throughout the country.

Known as Galaxy and described as a tool for the visualization of 
genetic data, the Cannabis Evolution Project is a joint venture 
between the Oregon company and the American Museum of Natural History 
in New York. Mowgli Holmes, Phylos's chief science officer, was a 
student of Rob DeSalle, a phylogeneticist at the museum.

The evolution of the plant was an intriguing subject, said Dr. 
Holmes, who is a molecular and evolutionary biologist, in addition to 
being a co-founder of Phylos Bioscience. He said that Dr. DeSalle was 
"obsessed with the way that domestication pressure changes the 
patterns of evolution."

Phylos has created a colorful 3-D map that visually represents the 
statistical relationships between different breeds of the plant. The 
company hopes that having genetic information easily available will 
help bring order to a business that began underground and is now 
making a commercial transition.

Over time, the scientists believe, this sort of visual map can be 
applied to other types of plants, or even to animals.

"We've collected samples from all over the world, and cataloged the 
genetic information encoded in their DNA," Dr. Holmes said. He 
likened the DNA sequence to a bar code that uniquely identifies the 
samples and how they interrelate.

Currently, there are a variety of services, such as Leafly, Weedmaps, 
Verdabase and Cannabis Reports that catalog different strains of the 
plant. However, the field has lacked the accuracy offered by actual sequencing.

Given the history of the marijuana business, it is not surprising 
that samples represented in the Phylos visualization have colorful 
names like DJ Short's Blueberry, Sweet Island Skunk, Humboldt OG, 
Bright Moments, Sour Diesel and Cherry Cheesecake, to name a few.

One family known as Girl Scout Cookies may present particular 
problems for the new industry, according to Nishan Karassik, Phylos's 
co-founder and chief executive, because of its potential legal 
conflict with the Girl Scouts of America.

The homegrown roots of the marijuana business have led to a 
proliferation of local names, Mr. Karassik said. "That has created a 
very localized market because of that access to the product when it 
was underground," he said. "All other plants and animals have clear 
pedigrees. We need to create a pedigreed system to clarify this."

He said that as marijuana has become a commercial product, people 
increasingly want to find the products they like or want to avoid, be 
they for medical or recreational use.

The initial version of Galaxy is largely a framework that visually 
plots the location of different samples in relationship to one 
another. In the future, the company plans to overlay the visual 
information with additional data that will include a variety of 
detail attributes, such as the amount of particular compounds called 
cannabinoids that are characteristics of the plants. Two of these are 
cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which give the plant 
medicinal and psychoactive qualities.

Mr. Karassik said that Phylos did not plan to breed plants but is 
hoping to charge a small fee for adding detailed information about 
the samples that are produced by commercial breeders.

Each sample is represented in a view that resembles a star field 
broken into clusters that can be thought of as "families" or 
"tribes." The distance between the samples is indicative of how much 
genetic material they share.

The company has been aided by the collapsing cost of genetic 
sequencing. Dr. Holmes said that the researchers had initially 
intended to build upon existing science. But he added that he was 
hopeful that Galaxy could be used as a more general tool for 
scientific understanding of a variety of plants and animals. The 
obvious possibility would be to offer similar visualization tools for 
grapes, wines and even coffee.

"As we get further and further into cannabinoid biochemistry," he 
said, "there will be a lot of new science."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom