The New Cannabis? Scientists Find Cannabinoids in South African “Woolly Umbrella” Plant
By Alexander Beadle
Scientists have discovered another plant that is able to produce cannabinoids, compounds that were previously thought to be exclusive to the cannabis plant.
In a new study, published in the journal Nature Plants, researchers using advanced imaging techniques and genetic sequencing data confirmed the presence of more than a dozen cannabinoids in the glandular trichomes of Helichrysum umbraculigerum, a South African plant better known as the “woolly umbrella”.
While the plant does not produce THC or CBD – the two major cannabinoids that cannabis is normally move coveted for – the researchers did find significant amounts of cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). This acidic cannabinoid is a precursor compound to THC and CBD, as well as many of the more minor cannabinoids that are of interest to the medical community, such as cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabichromene (CBC).
The researchers say that their findings, combined with woolly umbrella’s known fast growth rates and easy propagation, suggest that the plant could be another potentially commercially-viable source of bioactive cannabinoids for research and commercial use.
Woolly umbrella produces well-known cannabinoids
The woolly umbrella plant is a fast-growing perennial herb, commonly found in the regions between the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Named for its distinctive mustard-colored parasol-shaped flowers, the woolly umbrella is also known for its burning in traditional folk ceremonies to release intoxicating fumes.
When searching for what makes these fumes intoxicating more than 40 years ago, scientists identified traces of CBGA – the mother of cannabinoids – in the woolly umbrella plant. This discovery made the woolly umbrella the first non-cannabis plant species known to be capable of producing these compounds. However, a subsequent study was unable to replicate this result.
Now, armed with cutting-edge analytical chemistry techniques and genome sequencing data, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science set out to definitively confirm the presence or absence of these cannabinoids.
Using NMR spectroscopy, they detected and determined the precise structures of more than a dozen cannabinoids and related metabolites in H. umbraculigerum. While THC and CBD – the two major cannabinoids found in cannabis – were not seen in the plant, six of the cannabinoids found are identical to those seen in cannabis. These chemicals included CBGA, which was found in levels up to 4.3% dry weight in the plants’ leaves.
This is comparable to the levels typically measured in some cannabis chemotypes, the researchers say. As CBGA is a precursor molecule to the other classical cannabinoids that are of interest to researchers and the cannabis industry – including THC, CBD, CBG, CBC, and others – this may suggest that woolly umbrella could be a valuable alternative source of plant-based cannabinoid for the industry, especially in light of its fast growth and easy propagation.
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