Cracking the code on medicinal cannabis

PhD student Erez Naim-Feil in Agriculture Victoria’s controlled environment cultivation facility.

In 2016, Victoria legalised the use of medicinal cannabis, and since then scientists have improved strains to produce better health products.

Victorian scientists have unlocked the genetic code of medicinal cannabis, creating the world’s most complete DNA sequence.

Agriculture Victoria laboratories have been fitted with the latest technology that can precisely measure and quantify cannabinoids, and are being used by Victorian scientists to quickly and accurately identify the cannabis varieties with the best medicinal properties.

In the biggest study of its kind, the key physiological traits of 121 medicinal cannabis strains have been characterised by scientists, which will help breed plants that are tailored to treat a range of medical conditions.

In 2016, Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise the use of medicinal cannabis and its first government grown crop was also harvested that year by Agriculture Victoria. Medicinal cannabis is rich in compounds, known as cannabinoids, which can be used singularly or combined to treat and manage a range of health conditions such as cancer and chronic pain, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Agriculture Victoria PhD student Erez Naim-Feil said while cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for millennia, its designation as an illegal crop over the last century drove cultivation underground.

“Cannabis was cultivated in clandestine conditions and driven by recreational consumers, breeding focused on selecting crops with high THC (a psychoactive cannabinoid that produces a ‘high’), so scientific knowledge of the plant is limited,” Erez said.

“That’s why the potential is so great, by using contemporary scientific tools we are discovering new things that have never been reported before – this research is the first to characterise the traits of such a wide range of medicinal strains.”

The findings showed historical selective breeding for high THC has had no impact on the physiology of the cannabis strains.

“There was very high diversity in the physiological traits we were examining, which is an excellent finding for breeding purposes,” he said.

The research team identified five attributes that can be used to maximise plant growth and productivity. These attributes can be manipulated to adjust plant development towards the desired plant architecture, such as cultivating fast-growing plants with a quick production turnaround or plants that match specific shapes and sizes.

The team also developed a novel prediction equation which can be used across a broad range of medicinal cannabis strains. By obtaining a few parameters from the growing plant during the vegetative phase (the first four weeks of cultivation), the equation can predict the yield of the plant at the end of the season.

“This equation is the most important aspect of this research, as it could be utilised as a powerful selection tool to streamline breeding, increase selection intensity and enhance genetic gain,” Erez said.

“If breeders are screening 1000 plants, they don’t have time to process and weigh them all to determine yield, but this equation could be used to identify and select favourable plants and discard others.”

Characterising these physiological traits will provide medicinal cannabis cultivators with the knowledge to optimise the yield of specific strains.

“As every gram of dry bud is high in value, a tiny change driven by a better understanding of the physiological parameters can have a significant impact on the profitability of the medicinal cannabis industry.”

These findings will enable breeders to develop customised medicinal cannabis strains, cultivate more productive crops and fast-track therapeutic products for patients suffering from a range of serious or life-threatening health conditions.

Scientists at Agriculture Victoria have been at the forefront of genomic analysis and DNA testing for agriculture in Australia for more than two decades.

In 2018-19, Agriculture Victoria scientists sequenced 50 trillion bases of DNA. Advances in technology mean the same amount can today be done in just three weeks, which is equivalent to 60,000 cannabis genomes or 66,000 chickpea genomes.

Further research has been completed in this area at Agriculture Victoria by a team of cultivation personnel, computer scientists and geneticists. The research is focussing on reducing post-harvest costs while processing plant material to generate the product. These methods could benefit farmers by lowering operational costs and consumers by reducing the costs of final products.

For more information about the research capabilities at Agriculture Victoria visit Our research and innovation.


The characterization of key physiological traits of medicinal cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.) as a tool for precision breeding was published in the Journal of BMC Plant Biology.

Empirical evaluation of Inflorescences’ morphological attributes for yield optimization of medicinal cannabis cultivars was published in Frontiers in Plant Science.

This research is aligned with the Grow and Modernise themes of the Strategy for Agriculture in Victoria.