As any gardener will tell you, if you take cuttings from a mother plant, they will not all turn out the same. When you are ‘cloning’ tomatoes or pelargoniums for your garden, that degree of variation is all part of the fun, but when you want to harvest active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) at scale, such volatility needs to be minimised. While most gardeners won’t be considering the impact of light on the expression of their plants’ DNA, two companies are undertaking a research collaboration to develop lighting technology driven by artificial intelligence (AI) designed to bring precision to plant-production—with epigenetics firmly in mind.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in DNA which don’t alter the underlying sequence of the DNA itself. Chemical modifications caused by environment and behaviour can change the degree to which genes are turned on and off in organisms. For plant-growers, environmental factors such as light, CO2, humidity and nutrition have epigenetic effects on the DNA of their crop, determining what can be harvested. The understanding of the constituent parts of cannabis has deepened in the past decades, and research continues apace. The more precisely that epigenetic effects can be understood and controlled, the more precisely pharmaceutical agricultural manufacturers can determine what APIs can be grown in—and harvested from—their cannabis plants.
Phytome Life Sciences works at research scale (rather than manufacturing scale) on the development of technologies and therapeutics, using a broad array of plants with high-value chemistry, including cannabis. The company has a UK government licence to cultivate and research high-THC medical cannabis. Based near Truro in Cornwall, it runs a 100% controlled-environment agriculture facility, where all inputs are highly controlled and supplied by technology. Phytome is aiming to develop and patent technologies and datasets to drive AI pharmaceutical agricultural systems, then to commercialise that technology with partner companies to sell systems to pharmaceutical agriculture manufacturers.
Phytome has just announced a research collaboration with one such partner company, lighting and technology specialists OSRAM Digital Systems, to develop AI-driven lighting technology. Phytome is not making public details of the technology and AI that it is exploring, but told CBD Business News that “the first goal is to build a research tool that will be capable of screening plant responses to light in a highly efficient, automated approach in comparison to today’s labour-intensive approach”. It will involve sensors, analytical techniques, real-time monitoring of the effect of environmental changes, and machine learning algorithms which will be developed and trained to create and optimise “dynamic environmental recipes that leverage the epigenetic programming of the plant to deliver a precision yield of a target ingredient”.
In relation to medical cannabis cultivation, the plan is to elucidate the effects of specific wavelengths of light on the chemical profile, conformity and yields of target molecules.
Researchers elsewhere have published articles on the impact which LED spectra and intensity has on floral cannabis yield, including LED lighting affects the composition and biological activity of Cannabis sativa secondary metabolites (2019) by D. Namdar et al, and Wavelengths of LED light affect the growth and cannabidiol content in Cannabis sativa L (2021) by Xiuye Wei et al.
Dr Hail Rihan, Phytome’s head of plant sciences, has been lead author, or second lead, on articles researching the impact of light on plants other than cannabis:The impact of LED lighting spectra in a plant factory on the growth, physiological traits and essential oil content of lemon balm (2022),The impact of light spectrum and intensity on the growth, physiology, and antioxidant activity of lettuce (2021), A novel new light recipe significantly increases the growth and yield of sweet basil grown in plant factory system (2020) and The growth and development of sweet basil and bush basil grown under three light regimes in a controlled environment (2019). Dr Rihan (pictured above) is also a senior research fellow at the University of Plymouth, visiting professor at Jeddah University and consultant professor at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.
Dr Sebastian Vaughan, CEO of Phytome outlines the possibilities that the collaboration with Osram could bring: “Scalable precision manufacturing of important and rare APIs in plants offers breakthrough opportunities for the production of cannabis-based medicines and the wider biotherapeutics industry.”
Dr Vaughan elucidates the role of epigenetics in plant production: “The term ‘epigenetics’ in literal terms means ‘above genetics’. In the last few decades scientists have uncovered that the way in which genes are expressed is highly affected by epigenetic factors such as methylation patterns, and the availability of a gene to be expressed (ie where the DNA is tightly-packed or open). These traits can be inherited, but they also play a significant role in our response to environmental factors. To be clear, it does not change the underlying DNA coding sequence.
“Our vision for high-precision pharmaceutical agriculture requires the use of cloned plant propagules, and for their cultivation under completely controlled environment conditions. Firstly, this ensures the ‘software’ codes of the plants are all the same. Secondly, we can expect a homogenous response to the environmental signals we provide the plant, and therefore a scalable and highly uniform production of target molecules of interest.
“Light has three main elements to be taken into consideration: photoperiod, intensity and spectrum. Wavelengths of light between 400–700nm are the drivers of photosynthesis in plants and are typically referred to as photosynthetically active radiation (PAR). Importantly, plants do not respond uniformly to all wavelengths of PAR, and this is likely due to the distribution, density and variation of the different light-receptors in plant varieties.
“Over the past decade, LEDs have been developed that enable us to both interrogate the effects of monochromatic light on plant responses, but also to economically scale it to optimise plant factories.
“To date, research has investigated the role of LEDs to enhance plant shape, edible quality, biomass, number of leaves, growth rate and stem width. Simultaneously, research has demonstrated the effects of LEDs on chemical compounds such as vitamin C content, soluble sugar content, chlorophyll level, antioxidant activity and different protein levels of many plant species.
“This work is currently being undertaken in a slow and labour intensive way.
“Our first key goal is to develop AI-driven research tools to automate and optimise plant responses to light with key commercial markers in mind. From this, we will be able to develop and process big-data sets and develop dynamic lighting recipes for the entire lifecycle of plants grown in controlled-environment systems.
“In effect, we can run a series of inputs knowing how the plant will respond, and with very little, if not zero, waste of inputs.
“Beyond that first key step in producing processible data at scale and speed, we plan to commercialise an IoT [internet of things] smart technology stack that could be installed into manufacturing facilities for precision agricultural production of high-value chemicals.”
Dr Vaughan points to a clear need for research to unlock the safe and efficacious application of cannabis and other plants. He notes that, to date, therapeutics have been identified and isolated from plants before being synthetically produced in a laboratory. He believes that the collaboration with OSRAM will progress development of technologies which can unlock the medical potential of plants.
“We will combine its results with our highly advanced chemical manufacturing engineering capabilities to identify, isolate and produce specific plant-derived molecules for our advanced medical drug research and development.”