«It is going to be a new playground for our ambitious team»

Mike Ruckle, it is harvest time. We are now standing in front of the field. What exactly are we looking at?
MIKE RUCKLE: We are actually standing in front of 20’000 cannabis plants. The field is structured in order to get as much data as possible. From right to left you can see the genetic diversity that we characterized last year and collected in our database. In the middle of the field we have our main pre-breeding experiment where we see all the diversity of traits segregating in a structured genetic population. In the left part of the field we work with production trials from various cannabis varieties to document if a new variety is productive and stable enough for the market.

What kind of traits can be found here?
MR: We have them prioritized. The highest value traits are the ones that the farmers need in the field. But harvestable yield is dependent on a lot of different factors: How much cannabinoids the plant produces or which one it produces. Agronomic traits are essential too: if the plant falls over or rots because of botrytis susceptibility the biomass and cannabinoid content are lost. We spend most our energy on these traits because they are the most important ones to the farmers. However, we have other traits that are important particularly for our breeding program. Those describe the uniformity of a variety. If there is no visual uniformity, it can cause a lot of problems, like different harvest times for each plant, or different plant architectures that make mechanical harvesting difficult.
Giving the producer a uniform high quality and dependable plant is why we spend so much energy in the harvesting data off the field to define as many of cannabis` diverse set of traits. This is our major effort lies and where we are trying to figure out where those traits are on the genome. The largest and most labor intense part of the field is where the plants are segregating every trait that we have seen in cannabis – everything from structure to color of the leaf, color of the stigma or its flowering time. We are talking about 150+ different genes or traits.

What are the challenges in your daily work on the field?
MR: When you have a lot of genetic diversity, every plant shows it differently. But we have been working very hard at the beginning of this season to make sure that we harvest the plants at the right time to have the perfect correlation with the plateau of the cannabinoid production that you see in the majority of the varieties.

What is the most satisfying part of your work?
MR: I think cannabis is quite unique because it has so many traits that are valuable. We have had a lot of people on the field, some from the cannabis industry, some from the plant breeding industry. And there are only a few plants in the world where so many traits have value for the industry. It is a lot of work, but it is also a lot of fun as a geneticist to see the excitement of people coming out here and looking at the plants. The biggest surprise so far is the diversity in the field. As baby plants they all looked very similar. I am very excited about what I am seeing right now. And it is mostly this excitement and working with such a great team of scientists that all want to be part of such a cool and interesting experiment that makes me happy.

Is there a sneak peek you can give us for next year?
MR: Sure. Next year it is going to look completely different. This winter we will be working in our lab. We get to test our genomics, genetics and stability on the field. It is going to be a whole new playground for our ambitious team.