Tag Archives: intellectual property

Protecting Your Cannabis Plant IP

By Brian J. Amos, Ph.D, Charles R. Macedo, M.S
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You’ve bred a new strain of cannabis, or perhaps discovered an excellent new hybrid outgrowing the other plants in your cannabis plot. Can you claim the new plant as yours and legally protect it? The short answer is potentially yes. The long answer follows below:

Plant Patents


Since a 1930s’ Act passed by Congress, the US government has permitted a person land, and (ii) asexually reproduces that plant, to apply for a Plant Patent. If granted, the Plant Patent will protect the patent holder’s right to “exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale and importing the plant, or any of its parts.” In other words, if you have a Plant Patent, you have a monopoly on that particular plant and its progeny plants, as long as they are asexually reproduced (for example, from cuttings – i.e. a clone). There is a hole in the protection – once you’ve sold or given anyone the plant they can use the seed or pollen from it without your permission.

Originally this sort of coverage was thought to be useful for things like new apple varieties, which are often from spontaneous new mutants found by farmers in their orchards (i.e. “cultivated land”). But is it possible this coverage can be extended to cannabis plants? The answer is yes. Unlike the traditional refusal of the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) to register “offensive” or “disparaging” trademarks on moral grounds, US patent law does not have any well-established “morality exception.” And, indeed, Plant Patents have already been issued for cannabis strains. In December 2016, US Plant Patent No. 27,475 was issued for a cannabis plant called “Ecuadorian Sativa.” This plant is said to be distinct in its exceptionally high level of a particular terpene (limonene) at levels of 10 to 20 times the usual range, and is a single variety of a cross between what are commonly named as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.

How do you get a Plant Patent? Firstly – a Plant Patent is not automatically granted. The application has to be written correctly, and the USPTO will examine it to determine if your plant is new and distinct (non-obvious) from other known varieties, that it is described as completely as is reasonably possible, and that it has been asexually propagated. In addition, if the plant was “discovered” as opposed to “invented” then the USPTO will need to be shown that it was found in a cultivated area. A plant discovered simply growing wild cannot be patented. If you pass these hurdles, you will have a Plant Patent that lasts for 20 years.

Utility Patent
 

Another type of patent that can protect your new cannabis plant, and much more besides that, is a Utility Patent. Utility Patents have a longer history than Plant Patents in the US and, while they may be harder to obtain, a Utility Patent gives you broader protection than a Plant Patent. A Utility Patent can cover not only the plant itself, but if properly written can also cover parts of the plant, uses of the plant, methods used to create the plant, methods for processing the plant, and even edibles (like brownies) that contain an extract from that plant. If granted, the Utility Patent will protect your right, for 20 years from the date you filed the application, to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” An additional protection is that if the invention you claim in the patent is a “process,” you can assert the Utility Patent to exclude others from importing into the United States any products made by that process. Of course, given that present U.S. federal law regards cannabis as a DEA Schedule 1 drug, this importation blocking right is currently irrelevant. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that utility patents have a 20-year term, and Federal law may shift during that time.

Utility Patents are harder to obtain than Plant Patents. The USPTO will examine your application to determine whether what you are claiming protection on (for example: plants, cells, methods or processes) is new and non-obvious, does not cover a naturally occurring product or process, and is fully described. The simple description used in a Plant Patent is not enough for the more rigorous description needed in a Utility Patent. In addition, meeting the “enablement requirement” of a Utility Patent may require you to have the plant strain deposited with a recognized depository which will maintain that specimen plant – and you must agree that the public is permitted to access that deposit if a Utility Patent is granted to you.

So has the US government granted any patents on cannabis plants? Yes it has, multiple patents. A recent example is US Utility Patent No. 9,095,554 granted to Biotech Institute LLC (Los Angeles), which covers hybrid cannabis plants of a particular type with a CBD content of greater than 3%, as well as methods of breeding or producing them. Biotech Institute was also granted claims in the same Utility Patent for cannabis extracts from those plants, and edibles containing the extract. In this case, the plant samples were deposited with the NCIMB, which is a recognized depository in Aberdeen, Scotland. It should be noted that while the depository has to be internationally recognized, it does not have to be in the US. Another corporation, GW Pharma Ltd. (a UK firm), was early in the game and, according to USPTO records, has more than 40 U.S. Utility Patents issued relating to cannabis in some form or another, the earliest dating back to 2001.

Plant Variety Protection Act


A third type of protection is potentially available under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) if you breed a new cannabis plant by sexual reproduction. Colloquially, this protection is more often known as “breeder’s rights” and the USDA administers it. This right is not mutually exclusive with other protections – in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that sexually reproduced plants eligible for protection under the PVPA are also eligible for Utility Patents.

In theory, obtaining a PVPA certificate is a relatively straightforward procedure for seed reproduced plants, which are new, distinct, uniform and stable. If you are granted a PVP certificate it will last for 20 years from the grant date. You can bring a civil action against someone who sells, offers for sale, delivers, ships or reproduces the covered plant. So have any PVPA Certificates been issued for new cannabis strains? We have reviewed the USDA published certificates for the last two years and have not found any. Why is this? One obstacle may be what happens after you file your application. The US code governing these certificates states that a seed sample “will be deposited and replenished periodically in a public repository.” However, the government body that administers the PVPA, the USDA, specifically requires that all applicants submit a seed sample of at least 3,000 seeds with an 85% or more germination rate within 3 months of filing the application. Sending cannabis seeds in the mail to a federal agency – that’s a deterrent given current uncertainty. Ironically, the location that the seeds must be sent to is Fort Collins in Colorado, a state where cannabis has been decriminalized. The USDA’s published PVPA guidance describes courier delivery of the seed sample to the Fort Collins repository, but does not mention hand delivery of the seed samples. We contacted the seed depository and were informally told that seed samples can be deposited by hand delivery – but this still entails handing over to a federal agency actual seeds of a plant which is a DEA Schedule 1 drug. In any event, no PVPA Certificates that have yet been issued for new cannabis strains. It is possible that a new federal administration might deschedule cannabis, permitting an easier route to PVPA coverage. But for the present at least, PVPA protection may be hard to obtain.

Notice

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Amster, Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP, or its clients. Nothing in this article is to be construed as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.

Enforcing Your Patent Without Litigation

By William H. Honaker
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Patent litigation can be costly; the median cost can be more than $3 million. Even as the owner of a patent, you should explore all options before deciding to file an infringement suit. Litigation should be your last resort, even if your lawyer is convinced you can win. Winning a patent lawsuit is not likely your true goal. Remind your confident lawyer that the stronger your case, the greater your options.

Patent litigation is expensive and distracting for everyone. The expense is astronomical. A recent survey by the American Intellectual Property Law Association, “2017 Report of the Economic Survey,” stated that the median cost to litigate a patent case is $3,000,000. In addition to the out-of-pocket costs, there are the distractions that keep you from running your business. Patent litigation means years of endless meetings, depositions, document productions, and days in court.

William H. Honaker, member and attorney at Dickson Wright

Patent litigation is also uncertain. Like my 92-year-old father who recently was cut off on the highway. He chased down the young guy at a red light, jumped out and pounded on the guy’s window, and said. “ONE of us is getting his ASS kicked.” Patent litigation is the same; someone is getting their ass kicked. Many surprises can develop in a patent case leaving the outcome a question.

As cannabis-related businesses grow and enter the business main stream, patent litigation will increase. More businesses will get patents. Patents are valuable to businesses: they protect margins, protect market share and increase the asset value of the business. They do this by preventing competition.

The winds of change are blowing, as I read the article by Walters, G. “What a Looming Patent War Could Mean for the Future of the Marijuana Industry.” The article referenced United States Patent No. 9,095,554, stating:

“On August 4, 2015, US officials quietly made history by approving the first-ever patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, according to the patent’s holders, their lawyers, and outside experts in intellectual property law.”

At first, this made me acutely aware that we are on the threshold of a brave new world, where legalized cannabis is driving great changes in the way we look at a now-legitimate industry.

Then, I had a little chuckle when I read the words of a longtime cannabis activist:

“It’s going to be a mess,” said Tim Blade, a longtime grower and activist who founded California’s annual Emerald Cup cannabis competition. “Marijuana growers developing new varieties are going to have to spend a lot of money on attorneys.”

It’s clear Mr. Blake was starting to see through the haze of an unregulated industry that’s been under the radar until now. And what he saw was going to be a real buzz-kill. So how can you avoid litigation?

Both sides of the lawsuit will suffer. Typically, litigation should be avoided if at all possible. The good news is there are alternatives. You can take advantage of your patents without suing for infringement.

By knowing what you want, you can then know the options you have.The Myth About Patent Litigation

Before we explore alternatives, you may find some comfort in the fact that about 90% of patent suits are settled; (see Pridham, D. “The Patent Litigation Lie”, found in Forbes. Of those not settled, only 1% to 5% are litigated, (see LaBelle, M. “Against Settlement of (Some) Patent Cases” found in Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, 2014.) The cases not settled and not litigated are concluded through summary judgment or other motions prior to trial. But, even though only 1% to 5% make it to trial, getting to settlement or other non-trial resolutions is still uncertain, expensive and distracting.

Avoiding Patent Trials

Options open up when you understand what you want, and what you are willing to accept. First, you must know what you want to achieve, what you will sacrifice and how that will affect the accused infringer. Maybe you want to put the accused infringer out of business. You might be satisfied if they changed their product. You may want then to pay for their infringement, or only sell in certain geographic areas. By knowing what you want, you can then know the options you have.

Simple Agreement

Talk to the accused infringer and discuss your position and listen to theirs. You may be able to come to terms. I represented a client who was faced with asserting their patents against a competitor. The product was a huge success, and the patent was very strong. The competitor was clearly cornered, and like any cornered animal, it had no alternative but to fight. But there was an alternative. The client realized this and offered the competitor a different design. Not as good, but acceptable. The two agreed to the re-design, saving both millions in litigation costs and giving both certainty in the outcome.To avoid the loss of the patent, the owner decided to license, rather than sue, infringers.

License Agreement

Work out a license. As the patent owner, you have the ability to grant others the right to use your invention, for a fee or other terms. You define the terms and allow the accused infringer to continue their activities, or a variation of them. You can limit sales to certain industries, geographic areas, customer size, charge a royalty, allow for a specific time period to continue selling, etc. You can even cross-license technology with the accused infringer.

A client had a very successful product, but it was protected by a weak patent. Weak because others could challenge the patent and likely win. To avoid the loss of the patent, the owner decided to license, rather than sue, infringers. That allowed the owner to remain in control of the patent and receive a stream of income from the licensees. The licensed parties were limited to geographic areas, and not permitted to expand beyond them.

Mediation

Agree to have an independent third-party mediator consider your case. Mediation is an opportunity to have one or more independent mediators review the evidence and provide a decision. Every aspect of the process is agreed-upon by the participants. The parties can agree to the type of evidence that can be presented, the length of time of the mediation, the number of witnesses if any, the effect of any decision, whether evidence can be used later in a trial, whether the proceeding is confidential, whether the decision is advisory, etc.Getting the full value from a patent doesn’t always require litigation

At a minimum, mediation gives everyone an independent view of the case. This independent view can lead to more informed negotiations. It can show both parties what an independent evaluator considers the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s case.

Mock Trial

A variation of mediation is a mock trial. Again, the parties can set the rules. The difference is the Mock Trial would use actual jurors to hear each side’s case, normally a very short summary. This summary can take the form of a closing argument, brief testimony from key witnesses, or the reading of their statements. Mock trials are usually used to give the parties an idea of what a typical jury thinks, and help the parties better understand their respective positions.

Getting the full value from a patent doesn’t always require litigation. Historically, only a tiny fraction of patents are litigated. To avoid litigation as a patent owner, keep the lines of communication open with the accused infringer. Think about your actual goal. It’s rarely winning a lawsuit (that’s the goal of a lawyer, not a business person). Your goal is more likely a beneficial result that business people will both understand; a result that works for both of you.

Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights for Cannabis Put to Test in Federal Court

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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A number of cannabis businesses have pursued federal intellectual property protection for their cannabis-related innovations, such as U.S. patents that protect novel cannabis plant varieties, growing methods, extraction methods, etc. Enforcement of such federal IP rights requires that the IP owner file suit in federal court asserting those rights against another cannabis company. However, given that cannabis is still illegal under federal law, the industry is uncertain about whether a federal court will actually enforce cannabis-related IP rights. This question might be answered soon.

The potential impact of this case goes way beyond the two parties involvedOrochem Technologies, Inc. filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois on September 27, 2017, seeking to assert and enforce trade secret rights against Whole Hemp Company, LLC. According to the complaint, Orochem is a biotechnology company that uses proprietary separation methods to extract and purify cannabidiol (CBD) from industrial hemp in a way that produces a solvent-free and THC-free CBD product in commercially viable quantities.

The complaint goes on to say that Whole Hemp Company, which does business as Folium Biosciences, is a producer of CBD from industrial hemp and that Folium engaged Orochem to produce a THC-free CBD product for it. According to the allegations in the complaint, Folium used that engagement to gain access to and discover the details of Orochem’s trade secret method of extracting CBD so that it could take the process and use it at their facility.

The complaint provides a detailed story of the events that allegedly transpired, which eventually led to an Orochem employee with knowledge of the Orochem process leaving and secretly starting to work for Folium, where he allegedly helped Folium establish a CBD production line that uses Orochem’s trade secret process. When Orochem learned of these alleged transgressions, it filed the lawsuit, claiming that Folium (and the specific employee) had misappropriated its trade secret processes for extracting and purifying CBD.

While the particular facts of this case are both interesting and instructive for companies operating in the cannabis industry, the potential impact of this case goes way beyond the two parties involved.

If it moves forward, this case will likely provide a first glimpse into the willingness of federal courts to enforce IP rights that relate to cannabis. Orochem is asserting a violation of federal IP rights established under the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and is asserting those rights in federal district court. As a result, the federal district court judge will first need to decide whether a federal court can enforce federal IP rights when the underlying intellectual property relates to cannabis.

If the court ultimately enforces these federal trade secret rights, it could be a strong indication that other federal IP rights, such as patent rights, would also be enforceable in federal court. Since the outcome of this case will likely have a far reaching and long lasting impact on how the cannabis industry approaches and deals with intellectual property, it’s a case worth watching.

Protecting Your Innovative Cannabis Strains With a Strong Intellectual Property Strategy: Part 2 – Patents for New Cannabis Strains

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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In the first installment of this three-part series we explored the reasons why cannabis breeders should adopt a strong IP strategy sooner rather than later and looked briefly at the types of IP that those breeders and growers should be considering. In this second installment, we will examine in more detail patent protection for innovative new varieties of cannabis and how one can use that patent protection to further their business objectives.

What is a patent and what do I do with one?

A patent is a right granted by the government to protect a new and useful invention. Importantly, a patent gives its owner an exclusionary right as opposed to a right to do something – the patent owner has the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering to sell, or importing the invention (or, for a plant, any of its plant parts) for the term of the patent, which is 20 years for the types of patents that can be used to protect new cannabis varieties.

Because it is an exclusionary right, there are essentially two things that a patent owner can use a patent to do: 1) disallow anyone else from producing and selling that variety (or any of its parts) so that the patent owner is able to capture all of the sales for that variety, or 2) use license contracts to allow other growers to grow the variety while paying royalties back to the patent holder. The latter option can often be beneficial because it can greatly expand production of the variety by licensing to multiple growers. However, this does require some oversight on the part of the patent holder to make sure that the product those growers are producing is high quality –growers who produce poor quality product can hurt the existing brand. Cannabis breeders should consider these options up front when formulating their IP strategy.

Which type of patent should I use to protect my new variety?

As a further consideration, there are two different types of patents that can be used to protect new plant varieties and there are multiple factors to consider when determining which one to pursue.

U.S. Plant Patents are a special type of intellectual property that is used solely for the protection of asexually/vegetatively reproduced plant varieties. Traditionally, plant patents have been used to protect new varieties of ornamental and fruit trees and shrubs, such as a new variety of rose bush or a new variety of apple tree, such as the ‘Honeycrisp’ apple tree, patented in 1990. This type of patent has recently been used to protect a new cannabis variety called ‘Ecuadorian sativa’, while several other cannabis varieties, ‘Midnight’, ‘Erez’, and ‘Avidekel’ varieties are awaiting plant patent approval.

On the other hand, a “utility patent” can be used for new “compositions” (e.g., a new type of grow light) or new types of “methods” (e.g., a new method of extracting compounds from cannabis or a new method of growing cannabis to produce higher THC content). This type of patent can also be used to protect a new plant variety so long as the applicant can demonstrate that the variety is novel and not obvious over what was already known in the art. To date, two utility patents have been issued to protect cannabis varieties that exhibit certain cannabinoid and terpene profiles (U.S. Patent Nos. 9,095,554 and 9,370,164), and other similar utility patent applications are also pending (e.g., U.S. Patent Pub. No. 2014/0298511).

One of the main determining factors in deciding which type of patent to pursue is the nature of the invention. Growers and breeders will likely want to seek a plant patent if they have developed a new variety of cannabis plant: 1) which was made using simple breeding techniques, 2) which can be stably reproduced in an asexual manner (such as by cuttings and cloning), and 3) which is different from its parents and certain other strains on the market, but not completely distinct from everything that already exists. On the other hand, growers and breeders may want to consider a utility patent if they have developed a new variety of cannabis plant: 1) which has unique features in comparison to everything else that exists today (such as a unique disease resistance or chemical makeup), 2) which has unique features that can be demonstrated by some sort of biological or chemical test, and 3) that can be reproduced either asexually or by seed. It is also important to keep in mind that these two routes are not mutually exclusive – one could apply for both types of patent if the variety satisfies the criteria for both.

Though there are numerous similarities between the processes for obtaining both types of patents, there are also clear differences that should be taken into consideration when making the decision about which type of patent to seek. For instance, the grant rate for plant patents is much higher, meaning there is a higher likelihood that the plant patent application will eventually be granted compared to a utility patent application. Further, plant patent applications typically move quicker through the Patent Office, frequently being granted in approximately 18 months, while utility patent applications typically take two to four years (or more) to issue.

Another factor that should be considered is cost. Because a plant patent application is much simpler to prepare and typically moves through the Patent Office more swiftly, the cost for obtaining a plant patent is generally significantly lower than for a utility patent.

Determining which type of patent to pursue requires consideration of numerous factors. However, it is important to keep in mind that, regardless of which type of patent a grower or breeder seeks, there are certain time limitations that can impact the right to obtain a patent. For example, patent protection can only be sought if the variety to be patented has not been sold, offered for sale, or otherwise made publicly available more than one year before the patent application is filed. After that time, the invention becomes part of the “public domain.” So if a breeder chooses to wait to seek patent protection for a new variety, they risk losing the ability to ever get that protection.

Clearly, growers and breeders have to weigh several options when formulating a patent strategy, including what type of patent to pursue and what to do with the patent once they obtain it. Thinking through these issues early on allows the cannabis breeder an opportunity to formulate a strategy that is most beneficial in furthering their business objectives. Additionally, regardless of the type of patent strategy used, it is often helpful to combine it with trademark and branding strategy, which allows the business to utilize a more comprehensive approach to IP for their innovative strains. The third installment of this series will focus on trademarks for cannabis products and some unique issues that facing the cannabis industry today.

Legal disclaimer: The material provided in this article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney. The provision of this information and your receipt and/or use of it (1) is not provided in the course of and does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, (2) is not intended as a solicitation, (3) is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and (4) is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking qualified professional counsel on your specific matter.

Protecting Innovative Strains with a Strong Intellectual Property Strategy: Part 1– Why IP & Why now?

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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This three-part series will provide an in-depth look at intellectual property (IP) protection that is available for innovative and new varieties of cannabis. In this first installment, we will examine the reasons why cannabis breeders should adopt a strong IP strategy and look briefly at the types of IP that they should be considering. In the second and third pieces, we will look at the types of IP protection that can be used to protect innovative cannabis varieties and the unique IP issues the cannabis industry faces right now. Taken together, these articles will provide insight into IP strategies that cannabis breeders and growers can employ today to help prepare for the day that cannabis becomes legal nationally.

Why should I use IP to protect my cannabis varieties?

First and foremost, as the cannabis industry continues to move from a small, tight-knit community of breeders and growers into a ‘big-business’ industry, IP is the only way for breeders to protect the investment of time, energy and money that they put into developing new and innovative strains of cannabis. At a recent cannabis growing conference, one sentiment felt among numerous breeders was a feeling of frustration– stemming from the fact that they had spent many years developing new varieties of cannabis and, now that the industry is exploding, they are not getting recognition for all that effort. The way to avoid this issue is to protect novel varieties with IP to ensure that you are given proper credit for all of your hard work.

Moreover, an examination of industries that have strong similarities to the cannabis industry, such as other plant-based industries and ‘vice’ industries, provides compelling evidence that IP will become a main driving force in the cannabis industry as it continues to mature. For example, the fruit and hops industries have been relying upon strong plant patent and trademark protection for many years. The extremely popular Honeycrisp apple is a patented variety and the Amarillo hops variety (officially called ‘VGXP01’) is protected by both a U.S. Plant Patent and a federally registered trademark. Similarly, the alcohol and tobacco industries rely upon strong trademark and branding strategies, with many consumers being extremely brand-particular.

Additionally, there is strong evidence that the cannabis industry is primed for intellectual property protection. Since long before cannabis was legalized, consumers who were buying cannabis on the black market often sought out a particular variety from their dealer, something that becomes more prevalent as the industry continues to mature.

Why is now the time to think about IP?

First, the relevant governmental bodies have now provided some clarity as to the types of IP protection that can, and cannot be obtained for cannabis. For example, it is now clear that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will issue patents that cover new cannabis plant varieties and related innovations, such as novel growing methods. In fact, the first U.S. Plant Patent that covers a novel cannabis strain, called ‘Ecuadorian Sativa’, issued in late 2016.

Similarly, though federal trademark registration is not currently available if the product being protected is a cannabis product that is illegal under federal law. Federal trademark registration may be available to protect products related to the cannabis industry that are not themselves federally illegal (e.g., grow lights, fertilizer, etc.). Many states with legalized cannabis will grant state trademark registrations for cannabis products regardless of whether the products are viewed as illegal under current federal law. With this increased clarity, companies can now begin to formulate a comprehensive IP strategy that ties together the various types of IP protection.

Additionally, cannabis breeders and growers should look to adopt an IP strategy now because there are certain time bars that exist that may result in loss of rights if they wait. For example, as we will discuss in Part 2 of the series, patent protection can only be sought if the variety to be patented was not sold, offered for sale, or otherwise made publicly available more than one year before the patent application is filed. So if a breeder chooses to wait to seek patent protection for a new variety, the ability to ever get that protection may be lost.

The bottom line is that, to solidify their place in the market, cannabis breeders and growers should be formulating an IP strategy sooner rather than later. Those forward-thinking growers and breeders that adopt a comprehensive IP strategy up front will gain a distinct competitive advantage over competing growers and breeders down the road – an advantage that will become even more important if and when large corporations begin to move into the cannabis space. Those companies that have strong brands in place will be better equipped to survive and thrive in the face of pressure from legal teams at larger companies.

The next two installments of this series will examine the specifics of the types of IP protection that can be sought and the unique issues that the cannabis industry faces with each of them.

Legal disclaimer: The material provided in this article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney. The provision of this information and your receipt and/or use of it (1) is not provided in the course of and does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, (2) is not intended as a solicitation, (3) is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and (4) is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking qualified professional counsel on your specific matter.

Applications for Tissue Culture in Cannabis Growing: Part 1

By Aaron G. Biros
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Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer of C4 Laboratories, believes there are a number of opportunities for cannabis growers to scale their cultivation up with micropropagation. In her presentation at the CannaGrow conference recently, Dr. Jones discussed the applications and advantages of tissue culture techniques in cannabis growing.

Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer at C4 Labs

Dr. Jones’ work in large-scale plant production led her to the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) where she worked to propagate a particularly difficult plant to grow- a native orchid species- using tissue culture techniques. With that experience in tissue culture, hydroponics and controlled environments, she took a position at the Kennedy Space Center working for NASA where she developed technologies and protocols to grow crops for space missions. “I started with strawberry TC [tissue culture], because of the shelf life & weight compared with potted plants, plus you can’t really ‘water’ plants in space- at least not in the traditional way,” says Dr. Jones. “Strawberries pack a lot of antioxidants. Foods high in antioxidants, I argued, could boost internal protection of astronauts from high levels of cosmic radiation that they are exposed to in space.” That research led to a focus on cancer biology and a Ph.D. in molecular & cellular biology and plant sciences, culminating in her introduction to the cannabis industry and now with C4 Labs in Arizona.

Working with tissue culture since 2003, Dr. Jones is familiar with this technology that is fairly new to cannabis, but has been around for decades now and is widely used in the horticulture industry today. For example, Phytelligence is an agricultural biotechnology company using genetic analysis and tissue culture to help food crop growers increase speed to harvest, screen for diseases, store genetic material and secure intellectual property. “Big horticulture does this very well,” says Dr. Jones. “There are many companies generating millions of clones per year.” The Department of Plant Sciences Pomology Program at the Davis campus of the University of California uses tissue culture with the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) to eliminate viruses and pathogens, while breeding unique cultivars of strawberries.

A large tissue culture facility run in the Sacramento area that produces millions of nut and fruit trees clones a year.

First, let’s define some terms. Tissue culture is a propagation tool where the cultivator would grow tissue or cells outside of the plant itself, commonly referred to as micropropagation. “Micropropagation produces new plants via the cloning of plant tissue samples on a very small scale, and I mean very small,” says Dr. Jones. “While the tissue used in micropropagation is small, the scale of production can be huge.” Micropropagation allows a cultivator to grow a clone from just a leaf, bud, root segment or even just a few cells collected from a mother plant, according to Dr. Jones.

The science behind growing plants from just a few cells relies on a characteristic of plant cells called totipotency. “Totipotency refers to a cell’s ability to divide and differentiate, eventually regenerating a whole new organism,” says Dr. Jones. “Plant cells are unique in that fully differentiated, specialized cells can be induced to dedifferentiate, reverting back to a ‘stem cell’-like state, capable of developing into any cell type.”

Cannabis growers already utilize the properties of totipotency in cloning, according to Dr. Jones. “When cloning from a mother plant, stem cuttings are taken from the mother, dipped into rooting hormone and two to five days later healthy roots show up,” says Dr. Jones. “That stem tissue dedifferentiates and specializes into new root cells. In this case, we humans helped the process of totipotency and dedifferentiation along using a rooting hormone to ‘steer’ the type of growth needed.” Dr. Jones is helping cannabis growers use tissue culture as a new way to generate clones, instead of or in addition to using mother plants.

With cannabis micropropagation, the same principles still apply, just on a much smaller scale and with greater precision. “In this case, very small tissue samples (called explants) are sterilized and placed into specialized media vessels containing food, nutrients, and hormones,” says Dr. Jones. “Just like with cuttings, the hormones in the TC media induce specific types of growth over time, helping to steer explant growth to form all the organs necessary to regenerate a whole new plant.”

Having existed for decades, but still so new to cannabis, tissue culture is an effective propagation tool for advanced breeders or growers looking to scale up. In the next part of this series, we will discuss some of issues with mother plants and advantages of tissue culture to consider. In Part 2 we will delve into topics like sterility, genetic reboot, viral infection and pathogen protection.