Since the 1970s, cannabis users have distinguished between two types of herbs: indica and sativa. But this framework is flawed: problematic at best, arbitrary, and misleading at worst. And while some producers and suppliers are beginning to rethink their use of these terms, in large part this nomenclature remains ubiquitous in both legal and illicit markets.
The term “Indica” is commonly used to indicate relaxing and sedative varieties and cannabis products, while “Sativa” indicates a stimulating and energizing boost. According to cannabis folklore, this apparent dichotomy comes from the involvement of two different genetic lineages with different effects.
But a recently published article in the newspaper Nature Plants challenges this idea, at least in terms of the terms used today to describe and market the cannabis flower. In addition, the researchers found, strain names themselves are not reliable indicators of the genetic or chemical identity of a sample.
Improper labeling of cannabis
The October 2021 paper, entitled “Cannabis labeling is associated with genetic variation in terpen synthase genes,” was written by a team of researchers based at Dalhousie University in Canada; Wageningen University in the Netherlands; and the cannabis pharmaceutical company Bedrocan International, also based in the Netherlands.
The researchers began measuring the levels of 40 terpenes and cannabinoids in about 300 cannabis samples by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC–MS). They then performed a genomic analysis of 137 of these high-quality samples DNA could be extracted. Finally, they analyzed the extent to which the GC–MS and the genomic data correspond to the Indica-Sativa labeling of the product samples.
Indeed, the samples labeled with Indica and Sativa were genetically indistinguishable on a genetic scale, the researchers found, referring to the complete set of genes present in each plant. This indicates that knowing the reproduction history of a particular strain (“X-crossed-with-Y”) is less useful than is widely assumed. Similarly, the levels of the six cannabinoids tested (THC, CBG, CBC, THCV, CBD, i CBGM) were not associated with a specific Indica-Sativa designation, nor were those of most of the 34 terpenes tested.
In contrast, the central finding of the work was that labeling the “type” of cannabis was more in line with variation in only a small number of specific terpenes. This conclusion contributes to a growing body of evidence that could inform a more transparent nomenclature system that is already gaining strength among cannabis consumers and suppliers. As widespread testing allows for sophisticated chemical analysis, categorizing the cannabis flower will increasingly refer to its terpene profile.
Terpenes are key
In this particular study, Sativa brand samples were more closely correlated with sesquiterpene concentrations. bergamot, which has a woody or tea-like taste with no known psychotropic effects; i farnesè, which provides a fruity aroma consistent with what many consumers expect from Sativa varieties, but that too (counterintuitively for a category of strains that are said to be more stimulating) calming effect on humans.
Meanwhile, Indica brand products were more closely associated with monoterpene thank you, which has an earthy aroma and sedative effect, as well as sesquiterpenes guaiol (pineapple aroma; unknown psychotropic effects) and γ- and β-eudesmol (woody aroma; seen as a appetite stimulant). Appropriately, the authors note that a previous studies found that these three compounds were associated with plants from Afghanistan, considered the region of origin of Indica cultivars.
“Our results show that the Sativa-Indica scale is currently used for labeling Cannabis it misunderstands general genomic and metabolomic variation, ”the authors write, meaning that these terms say little about the genetic or chemical composition of a given sample.
The authors continue to suggest “that a practical and reliable classification system for Cannabis which is consistent with the contemporary understanding of the terms “Sativa” and “Indica” can be achieved by quantifying a small number of terpenes and / or genotyping genetic markers associated with keys. Cannabis aromas. ”
To put it another way, if we want to maintain these designations, it would be better to assign them based on an analysis of specific terpenes or their genetic markers on the plant, and not according to lineage, breeding history or general assumptions about the type. After all, terpenes not only impart aromas that can drive consumer preferences, but also influence some of the key physical and mental effects that medical and recreational users can look for when selecting a particular strain or classification.
Nate Seltenrich, a freelance science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, covers a wide range of topics such as environmental health, neuroscience and pharmacology.
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