The Plasticity of Cannabis Genome

How do plants adapt themselves to a new environment? We often ask ourselves the problem of having to grow plants whose original habitat is very different from what we are able to offer them: narrow grow boxes with artificial lights or a small balcony disguised in the city. The soil changes, the climate, the waterings become controlled and scheduled. What degree of adaptability and plasticity do plants have? Have you ever wondered how much the culture environment influences the yield or the growth of the same plant or on the contrary how a certain genetics can “adapt”  to environmental conditions often very different from those for which it has been selected by nature or by the hand of man in a greenhouse?

The genotype of a seed determines the characteristics that the plant will have since it will begin to germinate until the time of flowering, qualities such as: vigour, colouration, resistance to environmental stresses, response to artificial lighting hours, growth rate, flowering times and much more are already decided at the start and will be dictated by the genes. But the genes themselves are activated (and deactivated) in response to environmental stimuli. An example: A plant that has genetically inherited a great vigour from the parental lines, if it finds itself developing in a very different, or worse, hostile culture environment, it will survive but will not be able to show its best qualities. It will flower earlier  and produce less. While a plant that has a discreet vigour between genetic information but that will be “cuddled” in a greenhouse with all the comforts of the case, away from external attacks (pests, climatic changes, merciless wind and irregular watering) will give us the impression of being strong and productive but the same plant placed outside in an unpredictable climate will tend to manifest its genetic fragility. So what we were saying about the quality of our cultivations is often relative and must be analyzed. Today we tend to cultivate a lot in indoor and to standardize the genetic lines that often end up resembling each other, with very few exceptions.

We talk about genetics and interaction with the environment. Even various diseases or problems have environmental factors among the triggers. Another example: a plant that produces well-branched compact vegetation and abundant buds will be more prone to mold and fungal diseases because the interspaces between leaves and flowers are so reduced that they will provide a fertile environment for the stagnation of moisture and therefore the proliferation of mold , botrytis and other diseases but maybe a dry and well-ventilated climate or in a ventilated grow box the problem will not arise. Therefore we cannot draw conclusions before having experienced under different conditions. It is a good idea to find out about the plants of origin that gave birth to the seeds in our possession.

Although the plants develop optimally in the best conditions and tend to give their best in situations they like, they often have a reasonable margin of adaptability – this is understandable otherwise the plant life on the planet would be relegated to a few environments and plants would not have the tendency to spread also in climates different from the one of origin. But let’s talk about something different: There is a slow, imperceptible adaptation, a series of variations that occur between the genes of the plants that can vary and change until they stabilize over a very long time. By ‘long’ we mean, also, hundreds of years. The striking and immediate variations that occur from one generation to the next are very rare (we are talking about one in a million) and often regresses because they are located on recessive genes and the plants that possess them often have little vitality or are not very fertile, they can’t pass on this new feature because nature tends to know it, to copy itself and continuously copy the DNA, while ensuring a wide margin of variability between the genes but always being faithful to its origins. It is the man who, in cultivating plants, can isolate a new characteristic and try to reproduce it to such an extent as to fix it and spread it within a population associating it with dominant genes and thus reinforcing that characteristic within a stable population (a pure genetics line) so that in a time of research, selections and crossings ranging from ten to twenty years, researchers can isolate and stabilize a new variety that has a new colour, shape or new and surprising features. It requires excellent knowledge of genetics and biology because often crossing individuals closely related  means to weaken the genetic line. We therefore try to develop two or three genetic lines slightly different from each other but that have in common the “much sought after characteristic” of isolating populations, creating two (or even three pure lines) and crossing them only after they have been stabilized in a final crossing that will give the new genetic line a new vigour and will allow the line itself to have new and interesting characteristics.

The other type of adaptation that plants show takes place “in real time”, that is, the plants that possess certain characteristics and that respond to specific genes, succeed within certain margins to adapt to a different environment by slightly modifying their organs and lifestyle; but beware this does not mean that you are changing the genetics of plants, this is a false myth that spreads among the curious of the genetics, but it is only and only a temporary adaptation to guarantee the survival and efficiency of the plant in response to the changed environmental conditions. An example: Plants that have always adapted to grow in humid environments and with sun filtered by trees or clouds if they are born and grow  in a very  sunny environment will tend to burn themselves until they make a great effort and if they can adapt in time , will develop smaller leaves (slight change) because having less water availability, will tend to “waste less”. A small leaf requires less water than a broad leaf and the same leaves will be thicker, hard to the touch. It is not always said that plants are able to adapt temporarily to new conditions, this is just one example in a nutshell but the hypotheses vary. Temporary variations can invest the different organs of a plant (roots, leaves, flowers, stems, etc.).

In the event that these environmental changes become perennial and continuous, in a very long period of time, if the plants have the ability to flower and produce fertile seeds, gradually the population increase will mean that on a greater number of individuals the natural selection will drop its cleaver, slowly the winning plants could undergo the selection of the new environment and consequently what survives it reproduces itself until repopulating a new population with a different genotype and phenotype more suitable and reasonably different from the starting one, it is in this way that subspecies and  different varieties are born but we are talking about times that in nature can be so long that the life of a man, of a researcher cannot certainly document. To date we can only compare similar plants and hypothesize their descendants in relation to their distribution area. The same Cannabis, in millions of years, you know, it has adapted from environments with dry and hot climates with cool nights (margins of deserts) and perennially hot humid climates (equatorial forests), Indian mountains with freezing cold nights and days of intense heat, cold temperate climates up to polar climates in Northern and Eastern Europe as in the case of Cannabis ruderalis – The extreme adaptability and plasticity of the Cannabis genome meant that it reached us and on this corollary of information and characteristics, man has worked to create other varieties  and differentiation, but risking to lose many original information that are related to the wild genes of the plants of origin because selecting also means  to choose and when you choose we are excluding, leaving out something else. Is this perhaps the price to pay for having plants faster and richer in resin with flavours and effects, all in all, similar to each other? These are questions that many breeders and farmers are asking themselves, hence the sometimes illusory and bewildered research of looking for old landraces or wild Cannabis populations typical of large exotic territories or, who knows,  also slices of land not far from our home, remained undisturbed by centuries where some farmers  have isolated a particular population with amazing and unique characteristics. It is up to us to know how to discover and appreciate them!

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