When you walk into a dispensary in any one of the 25 states where medicinal and/or recreational marijuana is legal, you’ll likely see display cases lined with a dozen or more strains of weed. Many of these strains, like Pineapple Express or Blue Dream, will sound familiar, but is the Granddaddy Purp you buy in Colorado the same stuff your guy in California is selling you?
To answer this question, a company called Medicinal Genomics is creating a repository of cannabis genomes which are stored on the Bitcoin blockchain. The company hopes that its efforts will standardize strain nomenclature so that customers always know what they’re getting while also defending the intellectual property rights of those who breed new strains of weed.
Medicinal Genomics is a lot like any other cannabis testing company, insofar as they run tests on marijuana plants to look for microbial contaminations and determine their cannabinoid content to help marijuana cultivators comply with state regulations. Yet what sets this company apart is that their labs are also offering customers the ability to sequence the genome of their cannabis plants.
Hundreds of strains of cannabis exist and cultivators are working on breeding new strains all the time. In many cases, what sets these strains apart can be difficult to tell with a glance and a sniff—to really see the difference between them, you need to look at the DNA of the plant. Long before the rise of industrial cannabis, the name of the strain didn’t really matter. If your dealer was growing pot in his mom’s basement and told you that your buds were OG Kush, then that’s what they were—who cares if you were actually getting Girl Scout Cookies as long as it got you stoned.
A flower room at a Denver grow op. Image: Daniel Oberhaus
But now that marijuana is becoming a regulated industry (at least on the state level), the name of a strain of weed is starting to matter: not only have we turned into a generation of pot snobs, but making sure a strain has consistent qualities is also crucial to its effectiveness as a medicine.
As a result, large growers are beginning to think about securing intellectual property rights for their strains, which became a possibility in August 2015 when the first patent for a strain of weed was filed at the US Patent Office. In response to this development, Medicinal Genomics saw an opportunity: it could assuage the fallout from the looming legal battle over strain ownership by allowing customers to register their strains on the Bitcoin blockchain.
For $600, growers can now buy a DNA purification kit for one of their plants and ship the genetic material to one of Medicinal Genomics partner labs for sequencing. Once the sequencing is done, scientists at Medical Genomics will compare the strain’s genome to a reference strain—in their case, this is Purple Kush—and record its genetic deviations from this reference to differentiate it as a unique strain.
Once the genotype of a grower’s plant has been determined, the scientists create a file documenting the unique properties of that strain and then runs that file through a cryptographic hash algorithm which scrambles the file’s information and produces a random string of numbers and letters known as a hashsum, or fingerprint, for the file.
This hashsum representing the file which contains the strain genotype is then tacked on to a Bitcoin transaction (the Bitcoin protocol allows for small amounts of information to be added to a transaction). What this does, effectively, is allow the owner of the strain to have an immutable, publicly accessible time-stamped record claiming their ownership of the strain. If another grower were to claim IP rights for the same strain, the original grower can point to the strain’s block on the Bitcoin blockchain as proof that they had been growing this strain before.
Although many institutions from banks to national governments are developing their own proprietary blockchains as repositories of sensitive information, for Medicinal Genomics it made more sense to integrate the company’s work into Bitcoin rather than trying to create a blockchain solely for strains it had sequenced.
“The Bitcoin blockchain has been going since 2009 and it’s security is in its proof of work,” said Kevin McKernan, Medicinal Genomics’ Chief Science Officer and a member of the Human Genome Project’s R&D team. “If you're dealing with customers' intellectual property and you're putting it in some side chain that you're supporting, if your network goes down and you don't manage that well, then you've let them all down.”
Strain map showing genetic similarities between cannabis strains. KannaPedia/Medicinal Genomics.
As might be expected, Medicinal Genomics has sparked a race among growers to sequence their strains and register them on the blockchain. While this is not the same thing as getting a patent from the US Patent Office for that strain and thus having IP rights for that strain, it does protect that grower in the event that someone else files a patent for that particular strain. In that case, the grower with their strain registered on the blockchain would be protected from an IP-violation lawsuit by whoever filed the patent through previous use exemption rights.
Medicinal Genomics currently has about 1000 strains registered on the blockchain, approximately 420 of which are publicly accessible through the company’s genomic repository, KannaPedia. Yet McKernan’s blockchain-powered cannabis genomics project is about more than avoiding lawsuits and enabling effective branding for growers who want you to know that their Green Crack is actually Green Crack.
Ultimately it’s a biological history project on a grand scale, which seeks to plot out cannabis’ evolutionary history while facilitating and mapping the rapid development of new strains. Despite the unprecedented rise of industrial cannabis in the last few years, the plant’s future on a global scale is far from certain. By putting this information in a decentralized, public ledger, McKernan and his colleagues are making sure that their dank genomics will never be lost.
“If for any reason we ever got shut down, all the people in the community that have the sequence files we gave them and could recreate our database,” McKernan told Motherboard. “I think that's important for the cannabis field. If we ever want to figure out the mitochondrial Eve of cannabis, it can't exist in a centralized database under one company's control.”
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