Genetic Testing Comes to Michigan

Can genetic testing yield the finest marijuana on the planet? Chemists at a Warren lab are betting on it.

This story was reprinted with permission from Crain’s Detroit and written by Dustin Walsh

Today’s legal marijuana industry is about science and specificity — plant species, cannabinoids, concentration, genetic strains, terpenes —all things an average user would have never even considered before the legal recreational market hit Michigan in late 2019.

But the commercialization of cannabis in Michigan has created elbow room for companies to market products under the more specific chemical components of the plant.

Warren-based Reassure, a state-licensed marijuana compliance testing lab, is gambling on the marijuana industry following a similar trajectory as craft brewing and wine, where consumers develop a sophisticated palate, understand hop strains or floral notes and look for more than just a buzz.

CEO Michael Polselli told Crain’s that the lab plans to renovate 4,000-square-feet attached to its existing 6,000-square-foot lab to perform genetic testing on marijuana strains in an attempt to codify each strain’s psychoactive effects.

By performing DNA sequencing, Polselli said the lab can detect the “traits” a specific plant will exhibit and allow cultivators to selectively breed and manipulate genes to increase the yields of “medically beneficial components” of a plant. In other words, the lab will provide growers with the ability to hone in on specific effects of marijuana, such as making a strain that provides a more reliable reduction of anxiety than current strains.

The result should allow growers to produce a product with a direct and specific claim on how the user should feel after consumption, reducing the need for consumers to experiment to find the desired effect while also allowing cultivators and retailers to more accurately market the product.

“There are different areas in the genome and we can say this strain relieves anxiety and know it,” Polselli said. “Everything we do is consumer education. Consumers will become more sophisticated and I think these boutique strains will be popular.”

Ankur Rungta, CEO of C3 Industries, a vertically integrated marijuana firm that also retails its Cloud Cover brand and operates dispensaries under the High Profile name, said the science of marijuana has been grossly understudied due to its illegality for more than a century.

“There are 120 cannabinoids and tons of terpenes and we only know a lot about three of them (CBD, THC, CBN),” Rungta said. “Had we studied these for 120 years, we’d know everything. But we have this crazy void in our understanding of these natural compounds in this plant. We’ve studied a lot of things exhaustively in nature but we haven’t with cannabis. So it’s really exciting that there is going to be more and more science substantiated with data over time.”

However, Rungta does worry the industry may be slow to move to a more scientific approach.

“From a consumer recreational standpoint, there are sophisticated R&D growers out there, but much of it is pop a bunch of seeds, run them through production, share the product with your friends and pick which one you like. I think there’s probably science and R&D that can be brought in, but it will take time.”

Polselli said eventually the lab should be able to categorize strains to have quality mutations, such as being more resistant to mold and other contaminants.

He called performing genetic testing on marijuana “returning to his roots.” He’s a biochemist that spent more than six years at Genesis Genetics in various management positions overseeing genetics testing of patients undergoing in-vitro fertilization.

Reassure Labs opened earlier this year, a relatively new entrant into the marijuana testing business. Roughly 21 active licenses for marijuana testing labs exist in the state. Polselli co-owns the company with investors Stan and William Dickson of Detroit-based financial advisory firm Dickson & Associates PC. 

The product is now well-regulated and for a good reason. Mold and yeast are the most common problems for growers. Marijuana users are 3.5 times more likely to develop a fungal infection than nonusers due to various molds that can grow on the plant, according to an analysis of 20 million insurance claims published in Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2020.

The Cannabis Regulatory Agency requires marijuana growers to test 0.5 percent of a harvested batch of marijuana before it can be sold for consumer use. Batch sizes max out at 50 pounds under the regulations. In July, labs tested more than 2,700 pounds of marijuana flower and shake with a consumer sales value of $106.6 million, based on CRA data.

The regulatory agency also requires testing on two to 12 infused products, such as gummies, per batch which can range from 100 to more than 10,000.

In total, the Michigan marijuana industry sold more than $188.8 million of product including last month.

Testing the product

Just before lunch on weekdays, Reassure’s drivers return with pounds of marijuana. The lab currently tests approximately 30 samples per day with a capacity for about 80 per day, Polselli said.

Some growers need testing daily, others less so. Compliance testing costs about $400 to $500 per sample, Polselli said.

Reassure turns results around in three days or less.

The lab employs about 15 employees, mostly younger college graduates with chemistry degrees.

The state regulates contaminant testing for microbials, mycotoxins, moisture content, foreign materials, pesticides, residual solvents and heavy metals. Testing also measures potency levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Reassure’s staff breaks up the marijuana nugs, visually inspects the samples to look for mold or rat excrement, and then grinds the product up for further scientific exploration. The product is then stored in a freezer at negative 80 degrees Celsius. The testing includes blasting apart ions with a plasma laser or melting the product in acid, all to determine whether the product is safe for consumption.

Polselli calls the process similar to the environmental testing done on the soil.

If a sample fails testing for mold or other minor issues, the cultivator or processor must remediate the product and get it retested for it to be put on store shelves. That process involves exposing the product to ozone or an X-ray machine or air drying the product for a few weeks. The remediated product then requires two additional microbe tests, Polselli said.

Many large grow operations put all of their product through remediation prior to testing to sidestep any potential failures that can be expensive.

Reassure also includes terpenes testing in its results, in the hopes of cultivators making use of the information.

Terpenes are the naturally occurring chemical compounds in marijuana responsible for the strain’s aroma, taste and some health benefits. They are also found in herbs like thyme and sage as well as in citrus fruits. The terpene humulene, for instance, produces an earthy aroma and is found in hops as well as cannabis. It’s generally recognized as being an appetite suppressant as well as an anti-inflammatory component.

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