How the cannabis plant manufactures cannabinoids boils down to three simple steps, and the process can help you understand how best to profit.
The rolling back of cannabis prohibition is a global phenomenon, creating entirely new markets as well as impacting established industries ranging from beer makers to Big Pharma.
And it’s the compounds found in the cannabis flower that makes the plant so special. More specifically, you will find these compounds in waxy hair-like substances surrounding the flower called trichomes.
The image to the left is a flower bud from a cannabis plant. The fuzzy yellow and orange hairs sticking out of the flower are the trichomes and, as far as the cannabis plant is concerned, that where the action is.
The cannabis plant, which includes marijuana and hemp plants, produces these trichomes to protect the flower. These are for defense and help prevent the growth of mold and fungus, act as antibiotics, and deter pests.
The compounds trichomes make are part of a class of chemicals called cannabinoids.
You probably know the two main cannabinoids – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is what gets you high, and CBD is proving to have incredible healing properties. They are also, by far, the most abundant.
But the cannabis plant produces possibly more than 100 different cannabinoids, each with its unique set of properties.
And there is money and opportunity in understanding these properties.
Given all the intense interest in cannabis, we thought it would be helpful to give you a little explanation on how the incredible cannabis plant produces them along with the possible benefits of a few of more heavily researched cannabinoids.
But before we dive deep into workings of the cannabis plant, the way the plant makes cannabinoids can be boiled down to three basic steps.
Cannabinoid in Three Easy Steps
The three steps to making a cannabinoid involve a basic chemical reaction, a conversion of the resulting compounds by enzymes, and then the addition of heat to create more stable cannabinoids.
The chemical reaction uses molecules that have all the parts needed to make cannabinoids. These are called precursor molecules and mixing them in a chemical reaction creates a master cannabinoid that acts as a mother to all other cannabinoids.
The second step involves enzymes produced by the cells. There are many different enzymes, and each turns the mother cannabinoid into its child cannabinoid. These children all take the form of acids, so the next step creates a more stable form.
When these cannabinoid acids get introduced to heat, then the acids break down to a more stable form of the molecule. This is what happens when you light a joint or burn the marijuana in a vaporizer. The heat activates the reaction to convert the acid forms of cannabinoids to a more stable cannabinoid such as THC and CBD. That’s why eating raw flower that hasn’t been heated has little effect.
Some cannabinoids also take another step over time, which we’ll describe below. But now let’s apply these steps above to make some of the more well-known cannabinoids. Fair warning, this topic can seem complex. But the effects of the principles involved can be seen throughout the burgeoning cannabis industry, and many players are turning these principles into profits.
The Cannabinoid Workshop
All of the steps above happen inside the cells of the trichome heads found on marijuana and hemp plants.
There is a basic molecule that reacts with either one of two other molecules to create a chemical reaction. These are the precursor molecules, and the resulting reaction kicks off the process of making cannabinoids (or cannabinoid synthesis). The graph below illustrates how to create cannabinoids, from soup to nuts, but let’s walk you through it.
The precursor molecules are geranyl pyroshosphate (GPP), olivetolic acid (OLA), and divarinic acid (DVA). GPP combines with either OLA or DVA. The first combination produces cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), and the latter produces cannabigevarolic acid (CBGVA). Consider these two compounds to be mother compounds for all other cannabinoids.
From here, enzymes break CBGA and CBGVA into three main cannabinoids from each mother molecule.
CBGA turns into tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), and cannabichromenic acid (CBCA). CBGVA gets broken down similarly.
The important part of the process here is that the cannabinoids at this stage are all acids. These acids aren’t very stable, so they then typically lose a carbon dioxide molecule (CO2) and a hydrogen atom (H) to become a more neutral compound.
Together, the CO2 and H atoms form a carboxyl group, and in chemistry, a reaction that removes this group is called decarboxylation.
Through decarboxylation, THCA becomes the ∆9-THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), which, again, is the form of THC that gets you high from smoking pot. When we say the THC, this is the compound to which we’re referring.
CBDA becomes CBD (cannabidiol), which is the cannabinoid that is predominantly found in hemp but can also be abundant in some strains of marijuana.
Look again at the “Cannabinoid Synthesis” illustration, and you will see that this process of removing the CO2 molecule happens on down the line.
And all of the acronyms can get confusing. So the following table provides a list of names and acronyms for the cannabinoids highlighted in the above illustration.
But this isn’t the end of the process. Over time, if the cannabis flower isn’t stored properly, it ages. THC can degrade to cannabinol (CBN) by picking up a molecule of the oxygen we breathe (it gets oxidized). THC can also convert to ∆8-THC through a process called isomerization.
While this last step isn’t good for people looking to consume cannabis recreationally, it turns out that CBN and ∆8-THC have therapeutic properties as well.
In fact, it was the presence of CBN at a recent archeological site that led scientists to determine that humanity was using cannabis to get high at least 2,500 years ago.
At the end of this report, you’ll find a more comprehensive table that can help you trace the path from mother cannabinoid to acid, to more stable forms, and how they age.
As mentioned, there are possibly over 100 different cannabinoids, and we’re just highlighting a few.
And there is tremendous research opportunity for scientists in this rapidly evolving field – and they have barely scratched the surface of the benefits.
But we know of quite a few, so let’s take a look at the therapeutic effects of some of the more heavily researched cannabinoids.
Cannabinoids Can Benefit Your Health
As stated at the beginning, you can find both THC and CBD in abundance in the trichomes of cannabis plants. THC is mainly produced by marijuana plants, while you will find CBD in both hemp and marijuana.
You find all other cannabinoids in trace amounts, and researchers have studied the therapeutic effects of many of these powerful compounds.
In the table below we’ve identified benefits of some of the cannabinoids detailed above.
This table is by no means exhaustive, but it can help you get a sense of the opportunity the cannabis industry has before it. There is much to learn about the effects of different cannabinoids on human health.
The ability to profit from all of this opportunity is why so many companies are looking into how to manufacture cannabinoids and skip the plant entirely.
It turns out that you don’t need the trichomes in cannabis plants to make cannabinoids – you can produce them in a lab.
One way starts with the same chemical reaction the plant uses. Using the same precursor molecules that the plant itself uses, chemists manufacture cannabinoids synthetically. Noramco is an example of one of the companies involved in manufacturing cannabinoids chemically.
The other way to make cannabinoids, which is attracting a lot of private investment dollars, is a process called biosynthesis.
With biosynthesis, geneticists alter the genomes of simple microorganisms like algae, yeast, or fungus to get them to make the enzymes that, in turn, make cannabinoids. The micro-bugs grow in a vat and are fed a simple feedstock like sugar or starch and excrete pure cannabinoids identical to what mother nature provides.
There are a lot of private companies working in this direction, such as Ginko Bioworks, Hyasynth Bio, and Demtrix Inc.
At some point, it won’t just be CBD or THC that gets infused in beverages. Once companies have mastered cannabinoid biosynthesis, you can expect CBG or CBC infused products to hit the shelves, with some companies keeping products exciting by promoting the “cannabinoid of the week.”
7 responses to “Your Comprehensive Primer on Cannabinoids”
July 18 2019