Start-Up Plans 3-D Visualizations of Pot Strains, Using Genetic Data

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SAN FRANCISCO — Think of it as the consumer buying guide of the future.

On Wednesday, Phylos Bioscience, an Oregon biotechnology start-up, will begin offering an online interactive guide that visually portrays the genetic relationships of almost 1,000 types of cannabis, otherwise known as marijuana.

The resulting visualization will offer anyone the ability to easily travel in cyberspace through a three-dimensional projection of the genetic information drawn from sequencing samples of the plant, which is increasingly being legalized for medical and recreational use in states throughout the country.

Known as Galaxy and described as a tool for the visualization of genetic data, the Cannabis Evolution Project is a joint venture between the Oregon company and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Mowgli Holmes, Phylos’s chief science officer, was a student of Rob DeSalle, a phylogeneticist at the museum.

The evolution of the plant was an intriguing subject, said Dr. Holmes, who is a molecular and evolutionary biologist, in addition to being a co-founder of Phylos Bioscience. He said that Dr. DeSalle was “obsessed with the way that domestication pressure changes the patterns of evolution.”

Phylos has created a colorful 3-D map that visually represents the statistical relationships between different breeds of the plant. The company hopes that having genetic information easily available will help bring order to a business that began underground and is now making a commercial transition.

Over time, the scientists believe, this sort of visual map can be applied to other types of plants, or even to animals.

“We’ve collected samples from all over the world, and cataloged the genetic information encoded in their DNA,” Dr. Holmes said. He likened the DNA sequence to a bar code that uniquely identifies the samples and how they interrelate.

Currently, there are a variety of services, such as Leafly, Weedmaps, Verdabase and Cannabis Reports that catalog different strains of the plant. However, the field has lacked the accuracy offered by actual sequencing.

Given the history of the marijuana business, it is not surprising that samples represented in the Phylos visualization have colorful names like DJ Short’s Blueberry, Sweet Island Skunk, Humboldt OG, Bright Moments, Sour Diesel and Cherry Cheesecake, to name a few.

One family known as Girl Scout Cookies may present particular problems for the new industry, according to Nishan Karassik, Phylos’s co-founder and chief executive, because of its potential legal conflict with the Girl Scouts of America.

The homegrown roots of the marijuana business have led to a proliferation of local names, Mr. Karassik said. “That has created a very localized market because of that access to the product when it was underground,” he said. “All other plants and animals have clear pedigrees. We need to create a pedigreed system to clarify this.”

He said that as marijuana has become a commercial product, people increasingly want to find the products they like or want to avoid, be they for medical or recreational use.

The initial version of Galaxy is largely a framework that visually plots the location of different samples in relationship to one another. In the future, the company plans to overlay the visual information with additional data that will include a variety of detail attributes, such as the amount of particular compounds called cannabinoids that are characteristics of the plants. Two of these are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which give the plant medicinal and psychoactive qualities.

Mr. Karassik said that Phylos did not plan to breed plants but is hoping to charge a small fee for adding detailed information about the samples that are produced by commercial breeders.

Each sample is represented in a view that resembles a star field broken into clusters that can be thought of as “families” or “tribes.” The distance between the samples is indicative of how much genetic material they share.

The company has been aided by the collapsing cost of genetic sequencing. Dr. Holmes said that the researchers had initially intended to build upon existing science. But he added that he was hopeful that Galaxy could be used as a more general tool for scientific understanding of a variety of plants and animals. The obvious possibility would be to offer similar visualization tools for grapes, wines and even coffee.

“As we get further and further into cannabinoid biochemistry,” he said, “there will be a lot of new science.”