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Advanced - Breeding

What is colchicine and how is it used?

Polyploidy (favorable traits in Cannabis) has not been shown to occur naturally in Cannabis; however, it may be induced artificially with colchicine treatments. Colchicine is a poisonous compound extracted from the roots of certain Colchicum species; it inhibits chromosome segregation to daughter cells and cell wall formation, resulting in larger than average daughter cells with multiple chromosome sets.

The studies of H. E. Warmke et al. (1942-1944) seem to indicate that colchicine raised drug levels in Cannabis. It is unfortunate that Warmke was unaware of the actual psychoactive ingredients of Cannabis and was therefore unable to extract THC. His crude acetone extract and archaic techniques of bioassay using killifish and small freshwater crustaceans are far from conclusive. He was, however, able to produce both triploid and tetraploid strains of Cannabis with up to twice the potency of dip- bid strains (in their ability to kill small aquatic organisms). The aim of his research was to "produce a strain of hemp with materially reduced marijuana content" and his results indicated that polyploidy raised the potency of Cannabis without any apparent increase in fiber quality or yield.

Warmke's work with polyploids shed light on the nature of sexual determination in Cannabis. He also illustrated that potency is genetically determined by creating a lower potency strain of hemp through selective breeding with low potency parents. More recent research by A. I. Zhatov (1979) with fiber Cannabis showed that some economically valuable traits such as fiber quantity may be improved through polyploidy. Polyploids require more water and are usually more sensitive to changes in environment. Vegetative growth cycles are extended by up to 30-40% in polyploids. An extended vegetative period could delay the flowering of polyploid drug strains and interfere with the formation of floral clusters.

It would be difficult to determine if cannabinoid levels had been raised by polyploidy if polyploid plants were not able to mature fully in the favorable part of the season when cannabinoid production is promoted by plentiful light and warm temperatures. Greenhouses and artificial lighting can be used to extend the season and test polyploid strains. The height of tetraploid (4n) Cannabis in these experiments often exceeded the height of the original diploid plants by 25-30%. Tetraploids were intensely colored, with dark green leaves and stems and a well developed gross phenotype. Increased height and vigorous growth, as a rule, vanish in subsequent generations. Tetraploid plants often revert back to the diploid condition, making it difficult to support tetraploid populations. Frequent tests are performed to determine if ploidy is changing.

Triploid (3n) strains were formed with great difficulty by crossing artificially created tetraploids (4n) with dipbids (2n). Triploids proved to be inferior to both diploids and tetraploids in many cases. De Pasquale et al. (1979) conducted experiments with Cannabis which was treated with 0.25% and 0.50% solutions of colchicine at the primary meristem seven days after generation. Treated plants were slightly taller and possessed slightly larger leaves than the controls, Anoma- lies in leaf growth occurred in 20% and 39%, respectively, of the surviving treated plants. In the first group (0.25%) cannabinoid levels were highest in the plants without anomalies, and in the second group (0.50%) cannabinoid levels were highest in plants with anomalies.

Overall, treated plants showed a 166-250% increase in THC with respect to controls and a decrease of CBD (30-33%) and CBN (39-65%). CBD (cannabidiol) and CBN (cannabinol) are cannabinoids involved in the biosynthesis and degradation of THC. THC levels in the control plants were very low (less than 1%). Possibly colchicine or the resulting polyploidy interferes with cannabinoid biogenesis to favor THC. In treated plants with deformed leaf lamina, 90% of the cells are tetraploid (4n 40) and 10% diploid (2n 20). In treated plants without deformed lamina a few cells are tetraploid and the remainder are triploid or diploid.

The transformation of diploid plants to the tetraploid level inevitably results in the formation of a few plants with an unbalanced set of chromosomes (2n + 1, 2n - 1, etc.). These plants are called aneuploids. Aneuploids are inferior to polyploids in every economic respect. Aneuploid Cannabis is characterized by extremely small seeds. The weight of 1,000 seeds ranges from 7 to 9 grams (1/4 to 1/3 ounce). Under natural conditions diploid plants do not have such small seeds and average 14-19 grams (1/2- 2/3 ounce) per 1,000 (Zhatov 1979). Once again, little emphasis has been placed on the relationship between flower or resin production and polyploidy. Further research to determine the effect of polyploidy on these and other economically valuable traits of Cannabis is needed.

Colchicine is sold by laboratory supply houses, and breeders have used it to induce polyploldy in Cannabis. However, colchicine is poisonous, so special care is exercised by the breeder in any use of it. Many clandestine cultivators have started polyploid strains with colchicine. Except for changes in leaf shape and phyllotaxy, no out- standing characteristics have developed in these strains and potency seems unaffected. However, none of the strains have been examined to determine if they are actually polyploid or if they were merely treated with colchicine to no effect.

Seed treatment is the most effective and safest way to apply colchicine. * In this way, the entire plant growing from a colchicine-treated seed could be polyploid and if any colchicine exists at the end of the growing season the amount would be infinitesimal. Colchicine is nearly always lethal to Cannabis seeds, and in the treatment there is a very fine line between polyploidy and death. In other words, if 100 viable seeds are treated with colchicine and 40 of them germinate it is unlikely that the treatment induced polyploidy in any of the survivors. On the other hand, if 1,000 viable treated seeds give rise to 3 seedlings, the chances are better that they are polyploid since the treatment killed all of the seeds but those three.

It is still necessary to determine if the offspring are actually polyploid by microscopic examination. The work of Menzel (1964) presents us with a crude map of the chromosomes of Cannabis, Chromosomes 2-6 and 9 are distinguished by the length of each arm. Chromosome 1 is distinguished by a large knob on one end and a dark chromomere 1 micron from the knob. Chromosome 7 is extremely short and dense, and chromosome 8 is assumed to be the sex chromosome. In the future, chromosome *The word "safest" is used here as a relative term.

Colchicine has received recent media attention as a dangerous poison and while these accounts are probably a bit too lurid, the real dangers of exposure to coichicine have not been fully researched. The possibility of bodily harm exists and this is multiplied when breeders inexperienced in handling toxins use colchicine. Seed treatment might be safer than spraying a grown plant but the safest method of all is to not use colchicine. mapping will enable us to picture the location of the genes influencing the phenotype of Cannabis. This will enable geneticists to determine and manipulate the important characteristics contained in the gene pool. For each trait the number of genes in control will be known, which chromosomes carry them, and where they are located along those chromosomes.

(Taken from 'Marijuana Botany',R.C.Clarke,CH.3)