Brian Campbell helps sequence the hemp genome

Pat Conrey

“We actually had the Drug Enforcement Administration contact us and say, ‘Do you guys know you have a field of cannabis growing inside the middle of your field of corn?’” said Brian Campbell, a PhD candidate who is studying hemp genetics in the John McKay Laboratory at Colorado State University.

In a collaborative partnership with CSU Pueblo, The University of Arizona and the University of Colorado, CSU is helping sequence the hemp genome. Once the genome is sequenced it will make industrial application research easier but the road is not without bumps.

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Campbell said gene sequencing itself is a young science and one of his colleagues put together research funding from “couch change.”

Brian Campbell holds hemp seeds from Colorado State University’s field trials. (Patrick Conrey | Collegian)

Except for the Hemp For Victory campaign during World War II, growing hemp has been outlawed in the United States since the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. In 2014, President Obama penned two sentences into the farm bill that changed the course of hemp research in the United States. The first sentence drew a line of legal distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp, now defined by the United States Department of Agriculture’s website, “is used exclusively for industrial purposes (fiber and seed) with a tetrahydrocannabinols concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” In states where hemp farming was legal the second sentence Obama penned allowed for university research and pilot projects from state agricultural departments.

At first, CSU’s legal department was hesitant to let the taboo hemp trials commence, according to Campbell. Then, in 2014, the DEA seized industrial hemp seeds being shipped through the United Parcel Service to Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture. Under those two new sentences from the farm bill, Kentucky was allowed to grow industrial hemp and so sued the DEA.  

CSU’s hemp research team is thankful for the actions taken by the KDA, according to Campbell. With the doors now open, Campbell spoke about the transitional process.

“As we have gone on we have pushed, and pushed and pushed and they (CSU’s Legal Department) have given us most of the things we have asked for because they are things we do in every other crop,” Campbell said. “We have pretty much gotten to the point now that we can do what we want provided that it is industrial hemp.”

Genetic material of industrial hemp awaiting its sequencing. (Patrick Conrey | Collegian)

In an article from the Collegian, John McKay, the namesake of the laboratory, was still not even sure who would provide the cannabis seeds for CSU’s trials. Those seeds have now been sourced and are in outdoor field trials at the Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center near I-25.

Early trials were tainted, according to Campbell.

“If you let your plants sit more than a week past their maturity, birds will come and eat your seeds,” Campbell said. “I would walk into our trial plots and black birds would fill the sky.”

The community of researchers is growing, but after a Science of Industrial Hemp seminar in Denver, Campbell looked around the dinner table and realized that almost every major hemp researcher in the world was there sitting down together and eating Mexican food.

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Campbell explained the research torch at CSU will soon be passed on and new students will pioneer industrial applications of hemp.

“I would love for another graduate student to come into the McKay lab and continue research after me,” Campbell said. 

Collegian reporter Pat Conrey can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @load_of_crop