01/03/2024

Helichrysum umbraculigerumor the woolly umbrella plant, is a velvety-yellow perennial herb native to South Africa, and Israeli researchers recently discovered that the plant, which is definitely not part of the cannabis family, produces a number of cannabinoids that, up to until now, they were believed to belong exclusively to the cannabis and hemp plants.

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The recent discovery could open up new avenues for cannabinoid drugs and treatments. The study, titled Turning a new leaf on cannabinoids, was conducted by researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science and published in the journal Nature plants earlier this month.

Cannabis and the woolly umbrella plant

Researchers have been studying cannabinoids and their potential uses for decades. The best-known cannabinoid tends to be THC, although there are many others that have gained prominence over the years, have little to no psychoactive effects, and could help treat a variety of symptoms and conditions.

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While cannabis is known to produce more than 100 different cannabinoids, the research team identified more than 40 cannabinoids found in the woolly umbrella. They also shared the biochemical steps the plant takes when making these compounds and how these steps can be reproduced in the laboratory, to synthesize existing cannabinoids or potentially engineer new ones that don’t exist in nature.

We have found an important new source of cannabinoids and developed tools for their sustained production, which can help explore their enormous therapeutic potential, said study leader Dr. Shirley Berman of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The woolly umbrella plant is a relative of daisies, lettuce and sunflowers. It can even reach one meter in height and is often used to create garden borders. It is also known to be burned in folk rituals to release intoxicating fumes, which suggests that there may be more to it beneath the surface.

More than four decades ago, German scientists also found evidence that woolly umbrella contains cannabinoids, though modern studies have failed to reproduce those findings until now. In fact, the research team initiated the study of the woolly umbrella precisely to revisit its relationship to cannabinoids and greater potential as a medical aid.

A new frontier for cannabinoids?

The research team used cutting-edge technology to confirm those early reports. Specifically, they sequenced the entire genome of the woolly umbrella and used advanced analytical chemistry to identify the cannabinoids it contains. The researchers were also able to reveal the precise structure of over a dozen of the cannabinoids they observed, along with other related metabolites.

They found that woolly umbrella mainly produces cannabis in its leaves, which may be an advantage over cannabis, which produces cannabinoids in the shorter, sometimes difficult-to-pick flower clusters. Regardless, the researchers found many commonalities between the two plants; in particular, the enzymes used in each stage of cannabinoid production belong to the same families.

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Researchers have found that six cannabinoids found in the woolly umbrella are identical to those in cannabis. THC and CBD were not among them, although CBG, or cannabigerol was. CBG has become increasingly popular as research has continued to reveal its potential therapeutic benefits. Similar to CBD, the cannabinoid also lacks the mood-altering effects that create a high.

With cannabis plants in particular, CBG is considered to be the primary precursor to many popular cannabinoids. Namely, THCA, CBDA, and CBCA all start out as the acidic form of CBG, CBGA, which often leaves little CBG to harvest among mature plants. Growers have been exploring workarounds to maximize CBG production, but the wooly umbrella may pave the way for another solution.

A promising discovery for future explorations

Additionally, the researchers noted that there is an ecological viewpoint that needs to be examined further. Scientists still don’t fully understand why plants produce cannabinoids, although some evidence suggests it may help deter predators or offer protection from ultraviolet rays.

The fact that over the course of evolution two genetically unrelated plants independently evolved the ability to produce cannabinoids suggests that these compounds perform important ecological functions, said Professor Asaph Aharoni, whose laboratory was used for the study. More research is needed to determine what these functions are.

Going forward, the study findings could allow scientists to engineer cannabinoids that don’t exist in nature, allowing for better binding to human cannabinoid receptors or even specific therapeutic effects. The cannabinoids specific to the woolly umbrella plant may also contain untapped potential.

The next exciting step would be to determine the properties of the more than 30 new cannabinoids we’ve discovered, and then see what therapeutic uses they might have, Berman said.

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