How Langara bioinformatics students are cracking the cannabis code

Marijuana is legal in all Canadian provinces and was legalized at the federal level in 2018 via the Cannabis Act. This legislation regulates the production, distribution, sale and possession of marijuana to make legal cannabis available for adults and keep profits off the criminal market. According to a report from Deloitte, the cannabis sector is an important source of economic growth for Canada, “creating and supporting tens of thousands of jobs in communities country-wide,” and contributing $43.5 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) since the plant was legalized. The industry has generated $15.1 billion in Canadian tax revenues and the cannabis sector “is expected to make an increasingly strong and positive impact on national and provincial economies.”

Pot of gold: Langara receives large federal grant for cannabis research

In July 2021, researchers at Langara College received a groundbreaking $3.3 million in grant funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), as well as $400,000 from research partners including Pure Sunfarms and Nextleaf Solutions, to support the Applied Science for the Canadian Cannabis Industry (ASCCI) project. This is one of the largest amounts awarded to a post-secondary institution in British Columbia for cannabis research. The goal of the project is to facilitate innovation that will help grow the cannabis sector in Canada, with multidisciplinary work spanning across chemistry, biology, and bioinformatics. This is an opportunity for Langara College students to gain valuable research and industry experience, and prepare to apply their knowledge and skills in the field. Research on this specific project was conducted for new industry partner, International Cannabis Standard.

Two students working on the ASCCI project are Anmol Singh and Mike Wu. With the guidance of their supervisor, Dr. Ido Hatam, the pair are working with all publicly available Cannabis sativa genomes to build a comprehensive genome—also known as a pangenome—of the Cannabis sativa plant. A pangenome represents the entire genetic diversity from all members of a taxonomic group, such as all the different strains within a species. Why is this important?

“This is a monumental undertaking and no one has published a successful attempt yet. This work has the potential to empower growers and help them breed new varietals with traits they deem desirable and, therefore, this work is ground-breaking,” says Dr. Hatam.

Mike and Anmol at Applied Research Day 2023

“What it does is it gives you an overview into everything,” says Anmol, “where the mutations occurred, which areas are shared among all genomes, stuff like that. And you're using all available sequenced genomes, so you have all the information that you might not if you were just looking at one reference genome.”

Anmol and Mike are working with publicly available genomes from 14 strains to construct a Cannabis sativa pangenome, using various computational tools. Mike says this “gigantic amount of data” is then processed by a powerful supercomputer cluster, because doing so on a local computer would take years.

“The cool thing about pangenomes, or just genomes in general, is that there's two parts to it,” says Anmol. “Well, there's a lot of parts, but two parts that we're going to focus on, which are genotype and phenotype. Genotype is kind of like the code, and the phenotype is like a physical observation. Eye colour is a good example. The actual colour is a phenotype and then the fact that your eye colour is the colour it is, is the genotype. So it's coding, and what you can do when you get the pangenome or genomes in general is you would get access to which phenotype is linked to which genotype. And like back in the day, they used to think it was a one-to-one relationship, but with pangenomes, you understand that it's not a one-to-one, it could be like 100 to one or 10 to one, whatever it is, there's multiple genotypes that are coding for a phenotype. So that's what the purpose is here. We're trying to figure out that link between genotype and phenotype, and that's our goal.”

Singh and Wu's project poster. Click to open pdf.Once the connection between phenotype and genotype is discovered in a plant like Cannabis sativa, scientists could identify genetic mutations (such as the difference between blue and brown eyes in humans) responsible for traits like taste, colour, or even potency and the production of metabolites related to human health and disease. Dr. Hatam says the project is “an exciting scientific discovery with the potential to transform many aspects of the industry."

“If we are clear about the association between phenotype and genotype, we could build based on the pangenome and provide some insightful advice to local and Canada-wide breeders about what strain they want to choose to better suit them and be more successful in the market,” says Mike.

Bioinformatics students blazing the trail and breaking the ‘grass’ ceiling

Both students originally wanted to work in the medical profession, Anmol as a doctor and Mike as a pharmacist. Initially, both planned to transfer to UBC but decided to stay at Langara when they discovered the Bioinformatics program. After their interest was sparked, they decided it was an excellent fit and opportunity to explore an emerging field and market, while staying true to their passion for working in medicine and helping people heal.

“It's completely new, it's completely revolutionary,” says Anmol. “Our professors are very knowledgeable, and that's really helpful because they provide so much support and so much guidance. I think that's one experience that I'll cherish for the rest of my life, the professors and how much they care. And then on top of that, the community that you're creating. These are the people you're going to be working with in the field. Mike, for example, is probably going to be one of my coworkers or a partner on one of our projects in the future.”

“This program is a combination of computer science, biology and statistics. So there are a lot of opportunities, and although this is a new program, the good thing is we are pioneers,” says Mike.

Anmol also finished a co-op term with the program, where she worked with Microbiome Insights, a biotech company based at UBC. For her co-op term, students partnered with Health Canada to design a microbe mega database. Mike will be completing his co-op in the fall 2023 term with a consulting company, which he is very excited about.

Both students chose Langara for its smaller class sizes and more personalized attention from professors, as well as proximity, affordability, and recommendations from their friends.

“One was the closeness,” says Anmol, “I don't have to drive or bus or anything. So that's very, very beneficial to me. But also the fact that it's a smaller classroom size, so you're getting one to one with your professors, you can actually understand and talk to them. My sister is in her first year right now [at university] and her class size is 200 to 300 people. Her midterms are scheduled. I don't have to worry about that. My midterms are during class time. Tuition is also much cheaper here than if you're going to a bigger university. My eventual goal was to transfer to UBC, but then the Bioinformatics program came along and I was like, this is perfect. Like, everything just magically aligned and I was in my happy place.”

Langara College offers the only Bachelor of Science in Bioinformatics in BC, as well as a two-year Associate of Science or Diploma in Bioinformatics.