By / May 2, 2023

An African Plant Produces Cannabinoids Similar to Cannabis

A South African plant with the sweet Latin name of Helichrysum Umbraculigerum is known to produce cannabinoids usually found in cannabis, some of which could have new medical uses.

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Research Findings: Identifying and Replicating Cannabinoids

In a study published in the journal Nature Plants, researchers from the Israeli Weizmann Institute identified over 40 cannabinoids in this variety of Helichrysum. The team revealed the series of biochemical steps followed by the plant when it produces these compounds and also showed how these steps can be replicated in the laboratory to synthesize or even design new cannabinoids.

“We have found a new important source of cannabinoids and developed tools for their long-term production that can help explore their enormous therapeutic potential,” said Dr. Shirley Berman, who led the study, to the Jerusalem Post.

Potential Therapeutic Uses of New Cannabinoids

This variety of Helichrysum is traditionally consumed in South Africa. German scientists had already studied the plant in 1979 and found cannabigerol (CBG), the cannabinoid that gives rise to the others in cannabis.

Today, Berman and her colleagues, using a battery of cutting-edge technologies, confirmed this first report, as well as the presence of CBGa, the precursor of CBG. However, they did not find CBD or THC but sequenced the entire genome of Helichrysum Umbraculigerum and used advanced analytical chemistry techniques, including high-resolution mass spectrometry, to identify the types of cannabinoids it contains.

Thanks to nuclear magnetic resonance, the researchers revealed the precise structure of more than a dozen of these cannabinoids and other related metabolites. They traced the entire biochemical pathway involved in cannabinoid production and determined where in the plant they are made.

Differences and Similarities between the African Helichrysum and Cannabis

The plant produces its cannabinoids mainly in its leaves, unlike cannabis, where it is the flowers that produce these active ingredients. Despite this difference, scientists found many similarities between Helichrysum and cannabis. In particular, the enzymes used at each stage of their cannabinoid production process belong to the same families throughout the first half of the biochemical pathway.

“The fact that during evolution, two genetically unrelated plants have independently developed the ability to produce cannabinoids suggests that these compounds serve important ecological functions,” suggested Mr. Aharoni. “Further research is needed to determine what these functions are.”

Mr. Aharoni’s team has already pushed its latest knowledge of cannabinoid genetics further, using it to generate newly discovered cannabinoid manufacturing enzymes in tobacco plants. The researchers also succeeded in using these enzymes to create finished cannabinoids in yeast, which suggests a new method of manufacturing compounds for biotech research and industry.

Future Implications of African Discovery: Manufacturing Cannabinoids That Don’t Exist in Nature

In the future, the African study’s results could even lead to the manufacture of synthetic cannabinoids that do not exist in nature. These could be designed to better bind to human forms of cannabinoid receptors, for example, or to obtain specific therapeutic benefits.

“The next exciting step will be to determine the properties of over 30 new cannabinoids that we have discovered and then to see what therapeutic uses they could have,” concludes Mr. Berman.

(Featured image by Didier B (CC BY-SA 2.5) via Wikimedia Commons)

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