The Cannabis Cloning Conundrum: Catastrophe or Cause for Celebration?

It can take years of hard work to cultivate a cannabis plant with the desired characteristics. Marijuana reproduces sexually, meaning it requires a male and a female plant to mix their genetic material to create seeds, so fine-tuning the cannabinoid content, the growth features and other important traits is exceedingly frustrating labour of trial and error.

When a grower gets a strain just right, it can be disastrous to breed the plant naturally; all the hard work of cultivation can go out the window in one generation. Thus, instead of breeding, many growers simply make clones.

A cannabis clone is essentially a cutting of a plant which grows roots and develops into a separate, mature plant with identical genetics. The process of cloning can conceivably be done ad infinitum; the original plant and any clone can be cut and rooted to produce more clones. Thanks in large part to cloning, the best weed strains have gained popularity around the world-famous strains like Bubba Kush, Cotton Candy, Green Crack and Sour Diesel.

Yet, cloning isn't without its detractors. Some weed experts suspect that cloning isn't as foolproof as previously suspected — that the act of cloning might cause strains to change over time, which certainly isn't what marijuana growers or enthusiasts hope for.

Read on to learn the pros and cons of cloning, and how new research on cloning might change the marijuana industry forever.

cannabis cloning

The Advantages of Cloning

The main advantage of growing from clones instead of seeds is the retainment of the plant's traits — but that isn't the only advantage of cloning. Cloning also gives growers a head start with their plants. Seeds can take anywhere from several days to a couple of weeks, and though watching seedlings grow is fun, it isn't exactly profitable.

Cuttings start larger, meaning they are that much closer to becoming mature, fruitful plants. Plus, once a cloning operation is underway, growers can easily continue to make cuttings and grow clones to increase the size of their operation (to its legal limit) whereas creating more seeds can be an arduous process that takes time and knowledge, or else growers need to buy more seeds, which can become expensive. Thus, making clones is more time-effective and more cost-effective. That is, unless something terrible is happening with successive generations of clones.

Clonal Degradation

Genetic drift is a known and accepted mechanism of evolution whereby certain populations develop higher frequencies of certain genes over generations by chance, as opposed to natural selection. A good example of this is the land snail, which in some areas has a brown shell and others a pink or yellow shell, but with no genetic difference or evolutionary benefit. It simply seems that randomly, certain populations of snails will drift toward one shell colour over another, and if this continues to occur, the snails themselves could slowly, randomly evolve into a different species.

Clonal degradation, or clonal decay, is a supposed process whereby clones will change their traits over time, drifting from the original plant over generations of clones. We say "supposed" because it is unclear whether or not any degradation or decay actually occurs; it remains a hotly contested issue in cannabis culture, especially among growers.

If this process is real, it likely occurs as the result of epigenetics, which will turn genes on or off according to certain environmental factors, like light, humidity, soil, etc.; thus, the plant's genetic makeup will alter slightly over the course of its lifetime. It could be that genes turn on or off randomly, as occurs with genetic drift, or it could be the result of an intentional evolutionary effort to better adapt the plant to its environment.

The truth is more study is necessary to demonstrate whether clonal degradation is occurring at all. In the meantime, growers need to weigh the advantages of cloning against clonal decay's devastating possibility as well as a few other disadvantages of relying only on clones.

Other Disadvantages of Cloning

Just because cannabis breeders have succeeded in producing a strain with traits like high THC content and rapid flowering cycles doesn't mean the strain is devoid of flaws. When growers rely on clones, they are inheriting all the benefits of a cannabis strain, but they are also retaining whatever problems the mother plant suffered from.

cannabis cloning

This might be susceptibility to disease, reliance on highly specific growing conditions or some other weakness that makes cultivation difficult and expensive. Then again, not all cannabis plants can make successful clones, so having a clone-only growing model might restrict growers to fewer varieties than they hope.

To some growers, cloning is the best way to ensure that a cannabis crop is up to snuff; to other growers, cloning is an unnatural process that reduces variation and endangers the marijuana plant at large.

The truth lies somewhere in between — but it is up to individual growers to decide for themselves whether cloning could be a beneficial process for them.

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Mark Bernberg
Mark Bernberg

Mark Bernberg is a long-time cannabis investing enthusiast and founder of The Green Fund, Asia Pacific's preeminent media house, positioned at the forefront of the global cannabis industry.

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