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Dwarf germplasm: the key to giant Cannabis hempseed and cannabinoid crops

Abstract

After a century of banishment, both euphoric (“marijuana”) and non-euphoric (“industrial hemp”) classes of Cannabis sativa are attracting billions of dollars of investment as new legitimate crops. Most domesticated C. sativa is very tall, a phenotype that is desirable only for hemp fibre obtained from the stems. However, because the principal demands today are for chemicals from the inflorescence and oilseeds from the infructescence, an architecture maximizing reproductive tissues while minimizing stems is appropriate. Such a design was the basis of the greatest short-term increases in crop productivity in the history of agriculture: the creation of short-stature (“semi-dwarf”), high-harvest-index grain cultivars, especially by ideotype breeding, as demonstrated during the “Green Revolution.” This paradigm has considerable promise for C. sativa. The most critical dwarfing character for breeding such productivity into C. sativa is contraction of internodes. This reduces stem tissues (essentially a waste product except for fibre hemp) and results in compact inflorescences (which, on an area basis, maximize cannabinoid chemicals) and infructescences (which maximize oilseed production), as well as contributing to ease of harvesting and efficiency of production on an area basis. Four sources of germplasm useful for breeding semi-dwarf biotypes deserve special attention: (1) Naturally short northern Eurasian wild plants (often photoperiodically day-neutral, unlike like most biotypes) adapted to the stress of very short seasons by maximizing relative development of reproductive tissues. (2) Short, high-harvest-index, oilseed plants selected in northern regions of Eurasia. (3) “Indica type” marijuana, an ancient semi-dwarf cultigen tracing to the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. (4) Semi-dwarf strains of marijuana bred illegally in recent decades to avoid detection when grown clandestinely indoors for the black market. Although the high THC content in marijuana strains limits their usage as germplasm for low-THC cultivars, modern breeding techniques can control this variable. The current elimination of all marijuana germplasm from breeding of hemp cultivars is short-sighted because marijuana biotypes possess a particularly wide range of genes. There is an urgent need to develop public gene bank collections of Cannabis.

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After a century of banishment, both euphoric (“marijuana”) and non-euphoric (“industrial hemp”) classes of Cannabis sativa are attr