Medicinal Genomics’ goal is to standardize strain nomenclature so that customers can know what they’re getting when they buy medical marijuana, while also defending the intellectual property rights of those who breed new cannabis strains.
In addition to testing plants to check for microbial contamination and determine cannabinoid content to help cultivators meet state regulations, Medicinal Genomics also provides growers the ability to sequence their plants’ genomes.
To determine differences among cannabis strains, one must look at the DNA of the plant. Prior to industrial cannabis, the name of the strain did have any significant meaning.
As marijuana becomes regulated, a strain’s name is starting to matter since certain qualities are crucial to their medicinal effectiveness.
Hence, growers are securing intellectual property rights for their strains, which became possible in August 2015 with the first patent filing for a marijuana strain at the U.S. Patent Office. Medicinal Genomics realized it could contain legal disputes over strain ownership by allowing customers to register strains on the bitcoin blockchain.
Growers can purchase a DNA purification kit for a plant and ship the genetic material to a Medicinal Genomics partner lab for sequencing for $600. Medical Genomics scientists then compare the strain’s genome to a reference strain and record its genetic deviations from the reference.
Once the genotype has been determined, the scientists create a file to document the strain’s properties, then run the file through a cryptographic hash algorithm that scrambles the information and creates a random string of letters and numbers called a hashsum, or fingerprint, for the file.
The hashsum that represents the file containing the strain genotype gets tacked on to a bitcoin transaction. This provides the owner of the strain an immutable, publicly accessible, time-stamped record of their ownership of the strain. Should another grower claim IP rights for the strain, the original grower can use the strain’s block on the bitcoin blockchain as proof they have grown the strain before.
Many institutions are developing proprietary blockchains as repositories of information, but Medicinal Genomics believes it makes more sense to integrate its work into bitcoin rather than creating a blockchain for strains it sequences.
Kevin McKernan, Medicinal Genomics’ chief science officer and a member of the Human Genome Project’s R&D team, said the bitcoin blockchain’s security is in its proof of work. A sidechain holding customers’ intellectual property, on the other hand, could be mismanaged.
Medicinal Genomics has unleashed a race among growers to sequence their strains and register them on the blockchain. While blockchain registration is not the same as getting a patent and having IP rights for the strain, it does protect the grower if someone else files a patent for that strain. The grower with the registered chain would be protected from an IP violation lawsuit.
Medicinal Genomics presently has around 1,000 strains registered on the blockchain, of which about 420 are publicly accessible through its genomic repository, KannaPedia.
The project is about more than preventing lawsuits and supporting branding for growers. It is also an attempt to map cannabis’ evolutionary history while facilitating the development of new strains. Despite the growth of industrial cannabis in recent years, its future remains uncertain. By putting this information in a decentralized, public ledger, McKernan and his colleagues are ensuring their genomics will never be lost.
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