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WVU researcher to study THC levels in industrial hemp

A researcher at West Virginia University has received $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study industrial hemp for two years.

One of the many factors Michael Gutensohn, an assistant professor of horticulture in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, will be studying is the THC levels in hemp plants. THC is the psychoactive compound in hemp and cannabis that causes someone to get high and hemp growers are only allowed to have 0.3% of it in their plant. However, this is hard to control because very little is understood about the hemp plant since growing it was illegal until 2018.

If you look at hemp, there’s very little [understood], but on the flip side of that, any grower that grows hemp has the same questions and issues as, say, someone who grows corn would have. There’s a huge gap in knowledge and we really need to do some research there and we’re almost decades behind some of these other crop systems.

Michael Gutensohn – WVU Assistant Professor

Because very little is known about why hemp plants go hot, the term for when they exceed the 0.3 percent THC limit, growers often have to discard their harvest or wait and hope the concentration drops, according to a WVU press release. Gutensohn said this problem is far from rare and as a result growers are suffering, and in need of answers.

Those answers, he said, could lie in the fact that there are a variety of hemp plants, some of which are less prone to having higher THC percentages. Another avenue that might yield some answers is better understanding the environmental impacts on triggering THC. These environmental factors include soil conditions, pests, pathogens and the use of fertilizer among other things, all of which will be studied.

“In general, the end goal is to hopefully gain knowledge that can be used to develop varieties, hemp varieties, that would not run into this problem anymore,” Gutensohn said. “And in principle, there are two avenues for that, either you can do classical breeding, where you just test many many different varieties and hope to find and breed some that don’t run into that problem. That’s what has been done and is still be done by certain seed companies that breed hemp. The other thing that might be a different avenue and a little bit quicker to solve some of these problems is genetic engineering.”

The real aim is to have answers for growers at the end of the two year period as to how they can avoid running into the problem of hot hemp. As his research starts producing more answers, Gutensohn said, that information will start to be disseminated through WVU’s Extension Services that works with West Virginian farmers.

Developing new hemp varieties will take quite some time, Gutensohn said, because breeding and developing new seeds is a pretty lengthy process. That is why he is looking more in the short term to find answers.

Another aspect of Gutensohn’s research is beyond THC and looks at some of the many other chemical compounds found in the hemp plant. He said some are helpful in producing pharmaceutical products. One of those compounds is terpenes, which is what gives hemp and cannabis their unique smell.

“They are basically a feedstock material that there’s a lot of different interests in from the chemical industry,” Gutensohn said. “For flavors, fragrances, they are even, for example, considered as a biofuel or a biofuel additive. There’s a lot of interest in that, hemp plants produce an enormous amount of these compounds. Our research sort of looks at more than just THC and CBD, but a larger number of compounds because we hope that hemp can be sort of a platform to produce a lot of these compounds as well and our research will hopefully help from that perspective.”

According to the release, for this project, Gutensohn is partnering with two former WVU faculty members – Nik Kovinich, assistant professor of systems biology at York University and Nianqiang Wu, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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