Altria recently published three new patent applications covering trichome and terpene production in cannabis and tobacco plants. Let’s go over each in turn to see what Altria is trying to patent.
Trichome Density and Terpenes:
Altria wanted to find genes that regulated the amount of trichomes formed on the surface of tobacco leaves and genes that regulated the levels of certain terpenes. They only experimented on tobacco, but the same genes could be used in cannabis to potentially the same effect. They didn’t actually test any of these genes in cannabis, despite including the plant in their claims of use. Onto the results:
The above figure shows the control (Izmir WT) and the trichome count in three tobacco lines that have been altered to express increased levels of each of the labeled genes. What about the terpenes?
We again have the control on the left and a much more extensive list of genes modified for increased levels of expression tested. Altria only published results testing for the terpenes neophytadiene, duvatrienediol and 2,4-dimethyl-1-heptene. Duvatrienediol is specific to tobacco, while the other two can be found in both cannabis and tobacco. Only testing for the relative abundance of these terpenes provides a tiny snapshot of the whole picture in each of these modified tobacco lines. Did the input molecules for all terpene biosynthesis also increase, or were they diverted from inputs that would make other terpenes? How would that change the flavor/aroma? This patent application only shows that Altria modified these genes and found they either increased the amount of trichomes or the levels of certain terpenes.
Terpene Production in Plants:
This patent application is specific to terpene production, the entire terpene biosynthetic pathway in tobacco. Not only has the terpene biosynthetic pathway already been characterized in tobacco, there’s extensive research on tobacco being used to produce a variety of non-native terpenes. So I was struggling to identify the ‘novelty’ of this patent application. I believe they’re trying to claim that they modified terpene production in tobacco, showed those modifications lead to genes responsible for terpene production to have altered expression, thus providing novelty in the form of different potential terpene profiles. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone try to present this type of data to make such a broad claim. The previous patent application made sense to me, I have serious doubts about this one.
To add insult, they never measured any of the terpenes in these plants to present in this patent application. They did provide this confusing figure that seems to suggest they measured relative neophytadiene levels. However, they call it ‘gene expression’, which doesn’t make sense since it’s a terpene not a gene:
Tissue Specific Promoters in Plants:
The third and final patent application is more straightforward and complements the other two patent applications. The application covers promoters that can be used to tell the plant when/where to express a certain gene. In this case, Altria is interested in trichomes, so they attach a gene that can be visualized to show where/when the promoter will tell the gene to be expressed. The gene that most scientists use to do this is Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP):
The picture is in black and white so you can’t see much, but presumably these pictures show GFP in and around the trichomes of young leaves. Attach a terpene biosynthetic gene to one of these promoters and it should be expressed in the desired way.
All three of these patents are focused on tobacco terpene production and trichome density with different but complementary coverage. They show Altria is focused on this topic, but the quality and diversity of data presented makes me question their real intentions or commitment to commercializing terpenes as an aspect of their tobacco or cannabis businesses (cannabis through Cronos).
The preceding is the opinion of the author, and is in no way intended to be a recommendation to buy or sell any security or derivative. The author has no position in any company mentioned.