Canonic is harnessing techniques of computational genomics and artificial intelligence in deciphering the secrets of cannabis genetics. Ahead of the launch of its first products on the market, the CEO, Dr. Arnon Heyman, talks about the pursuit of the “Holy Grail” in the field: the development of fine elite varieties.

8 March, 2022

From the outside it appears quite routine. A small side road that winds around the lowlands and passes an agricultural farm. But what’s going on inside Canonic’s research and development farm is anything but routine farming: Behind the walls of the compound, teams of geneticists, bioinformatics, algorithmists, researchers and agronomists work together in greenhouses and laboratories to decipher the cannabis plant’s genome secrets. They formulated an innovative cultivation process that is being implemented in the cannabis industry in Israel for the first time, and have harnessed technological tools and many years of scientific expertise in plant genetics. The goal: to develop elite strains that are tailored to the needs of patients and boast a variety of desirable traits. The future generation of medical cannabis.

Ambition is engraved in Canonic’s DNA. It was established in early 2019 as a subsidiary of Evogene – a world-renowned computational biology powerhouse. Currently, the company seeks to bring deep understanding and scientific experience to the cannabis industry and to bring about real change.

The first objective that Canonic has set itself is to locate super-varieties that stand out above the rest and enjoy a fine genetic load. To this end, the company has built a unique and extensive genetic database which includes many hundreds of cannabis lines from various sources around the world. “We scan each plant in a greenhouse and characterize it from the seed stage, through the flowering stage to the dry inflorescence,” explains Canonic’s CEO Dr. Arnon Heyman. “The varieties arrive in our cultivation facility, a large and advanced facility of its kind that is geared towards research and development. A lot of resources have been invested in it and it has small plots that allow you to grow different lines simultaneously and to perform experiments in a controlled manner. In addition to the cultivation greenhouses, we have a quarantine incubator facility which allows us to grow and treat experimental plants from around the world, as well as molecular laboratories which allow us to characterize the genetics.”

“We collect as much information as possible”, explains Heyman, who holds a PhD in Biotechnology at the Hebrew University. “Characteristics of external traits such as biomass, plant structure and inflorescence appearance. We analyze the chemistry of the plant, which compounds each line contains and at what rate. Among other things, we test the cannabinoids – the same compounds that have evidence of interactions between them and the endocannabinoid system in the human body. We don’t only check THC and CBD, but analyze the presence of other cannabinoids as well. And we also examine terpenes – the compounds which affect the taste and smell, and the therapeutic experience itself. And on top of all this we also dress up genetic characterization: we map the different cannabis lines using their DNA sequences and with the help of sequence comparison analyses we understand which lines are genetically close and what the differences are between them. In quite a few cases we also produce extracts and examine the clinical features of the strains using model systems. The strains which emerge from here undergo a series of tests and at the end also a growth test at the designated tower in order to test their suitability in the field and make sure that they are the best genetics at that point in time.”

Accurate Treatment Experience

At the end of the scanning phase, Canonic recognizes at an unprecedented level of detail the traits of each individual in the incubator and can begin to select and nurture the desired lines. This is exactly how the company’s first generation of products was born, which includes a limited number of selected strains filtered from hundreds of scanned lines. The selected strains are expected to enter the market currently after two years of research and development, in order to provide patients with quality care experience.

But the technology does not stop here. “With the help of our abilities, we can influence traits, not just locate them,” Heyman declares. “Once we have identified desirable traits – for example a strain with a large inflorescence and a second strain with a specific active substance concentration – they can be included in a hybridization program and affect the traits of the strains from the ground up, at seed level. This way we get a fine cannabis strain with consistent traits.

It may sound simple, but it is a very complex process. Canonic’s database is huge and branched: it contains many hundreds of scanned lines, in which at times each are tagged with hundreds of traits. The genetic sequence itself is also long, complex and unfriendly to human eyes. We are dealing with a mountain of data, and it is very difficult to deduce from it which lines need to be hybridized to get the desired result. This is the ‘Big Data’ challenge and this is where the company’s expertise in computational genomics techniques comes into play. Canonic researchers navigate the web of information using powerful computational tools and artificial intelligence (AI) which identify links between a particular genetic sequence and some desirable trait in a plant. And once you crack the meaning of the genetic segments, you get a kind of map that predicts which species are worth hybridizing. This is an excellent foundation for a smart hybridization program that cultivates the varieties of the future.

“I believe that as we progress, we will be able to bring innovative products to market, both at the level of traits which the patient expects to receive and at the level of medical care,” Heyman predicts. “We aspire to reach a state where we can understand what the strain needs to express in order to provide better treatment in different situations.”

A Smart Hybridization Program

To understand the potential, one only has to examine a corn on the cob and know that the crop we are all familiar with looks completely different in its original form in nature. In essence, most of us probably would not recognize wild corn if we came across it. What led to such a drastic change in corn? The answer is decades and centuries of hybridization between strains with desirable characteristics. Thus, from generation to generation – and even more so in recent decades – corn has become the sweet, yellow and fleshy crop we know today. Many species of agricultural crops that we are all familiar with have undergone a similar process. All this time, the cannabis was left in the dark. A sealed and unused treasure. “For a hundred years, cannabis was out of bounds and missed the revolution,” says Heyman. ‘Illegal cannabis cultivation was done using less advanced and meticulous means. It simply did not undergo the change that took place in other plants such as corn and wheat.”

Canonic aspires to close that gap – and fast. “Using traditional methods, there is a limit to the amount of plants that can be dealt with, and it takes time,” Heyman notes. “We work in greater scope and know how to significantly shorten scan and grooming schedules. Processes that would last for a decade, are carried out with us within three to four years with the help of the use of computational genomics. It is important for me to emphasize that we do not use genetic engineering methods at all, but only innovative improvement.”

“We believe that medical treatment for cannabis can be improved and that genetics is the key,” concludes Dr. Heyman. “To date a great deal has been invested in advanced growing technologies, but the base – a quality plant – remains a weak link in the chain. We intend to change this.”

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