A genetic science project which aims to sequence the DNA of every strain of marijuana in the world could also benefit police forces across the globe, making it easier to identify both national and international smuggling networks.
The database could enable law enforcement agencies to track the source of shipments and provide a direct link between importers and lower-level sellers.
Pylos Bioscience, based in Portland, Oregon, was founded in 2015 by microbiologist Mowgli Holmes to bring more consistency to the recreational marijuana and medical marijuana business. The drug is currently legal in eight states for recreational use and available for medical use in a further 21 states.
Phylos has 17 full-time employees and has put together a collection of cannabis strains that includes rare, ancient, specimens from museums and herbariums in Thailand, Colombia, and a dozen other countries including the UK. Marijuana breeders and private collectors from around the world have also contributed samples from their personal stashes.
“The whole point of this project is so people know what they are getting,” says Mr Holmes. “Right now, it’s just a mess. No one knows what anything is.”
However, the project has also drawn the attention of law enforcement officials.
“Such a databank and signature mark would be a welcome tool for police and law enforcement agencies,” said Frank Limon, New Haven Chief of Police.
“It’s probable, in some cases, that conspirators of the overall operation may escape investigation and prosecution. The link between production and distribution would aid us in establishing conspiracy cases against the whole operation – not just the dealers and buyers. This would effectively connect the dots to street level narcotics distribution.”
Each sample that Phylos receives has its DNA extracted and is then loaded into a database that organises the samples into clusters based on the genetic traits they share in relation with one another. These findings are visualized in a interactive 3-D map of the known cannabis world, which the company shares on its website. With more than 1,000 strains documented to date, it is the largest genomic database of marijuana in the world, though there still remain thousands uncatalogued.
The Phylos project is not unique – forensic botanist Heather Miller Coyle of the University of New Haven is also working on a national databank of marijuana DNA aimed specifically at the law enforcement community, but the Phylos database is significantly larger.