Why Does Cannabis Produce Cannabinoids?
While some people may choose to believe that cannabis was put on this earth solely for the benefit of humanity, the truth is that the plant was here long before we evolved as a species.
Cannabis belongs to the Cannabaceae family, which is a small plant family made up of two important genera, Cannabis and Humulus (hops).
Although the early evolution of the plant is mostly unknown, what we do know is that the Cannabis genus originated somewhere in Central Asia somewhere between 55 and 6.5 million years ago before spreading out and diversifying all over the planet. Humans didn’t encounter cannabis until around the end of the last glacial period, just under 12,000 years ago.
Of course on top of its many applications, what makes cannabis unique is its ability to produce the chemical compounds known as cannabinoids that work together with the endocannabinoid system found in many animals. In fact, the Chinese Emperor Shen Neng was prescribing cannabis to treat various medical conditions as early as 2737 B.C.
But if cannabis wasn’t put on earth for human consumption, then why does the cannabis plant even produce cannabinoids?
Evolution For Survival
For millions of years, changes in climate conditions would have caused corresponding changes in plant habitats, forcing plants to evolve and adapt in order to survive – and cannabis is no exception.
Ice ages caused mass extinction of plants and animals and pushed some species into “refuges” that had favorable conditions for survival. The Cannabis genus was able to survive for millions of years by occupying more habitable areas in Central and Southern Asia.
In an interview with PROHBTD, University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf, author of “High Points: A Geographical History of Cannabis”, explained that, “In all its forms, cannabis is a plant that likes hot temperatures, especially when it’s getting ready to breed. It thrives in the summers and goes dormant in the winters. It may have grown way up into Siberia at some point, and then we know that there were a series of glacial periods, about four major ones, that covered much of northern Eurasia with these huge ice sheets. They basically changed the whole climate of that area for quite a long period of time. No plant could grow on the glaciers, but even in the areas just south of them, it was still cold and cloudy and not hospitable for a plant like cannabis. It may have moved farther south, like refugees from these glaciers, into the southern part of Mongolia and even into China. In a sense, a plant doesn’t move except by growing differentially in different places. It just couldn’t survive in the areas that had become so cold because of Pleistocene glaciers. We know it’s distinctly an Asian plant in origin.”
Many believe that it was during this time that some of the most dramatic evolutionary changes took place as the plant adapted to different geographies and climates. This is also probably when the cannabis plant gained the ability to produce cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Cannabinoids are terpenophenolic secondary metabolites, produced in tiny glands on the surface of the plant called trichomes. Trichomes are particularly abundant on the flower heads of the plant but are also present in lower numbers on leaves, petioles and stems. Trichomes are absent on roots and seeds.
Cannabinoids are synthesized as carboxylic acids. The key enzymes THCA synthase and CBDA synthase fold the precursor molecules (Cannabigerolic acid) into either Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) or cannabidiolic acid (CBDA).
Why are they produced?
Well, cannabinoids play a self-defense role in plant physiology. They will repel insects and absorb UV radiation. Cannabinoids also have the ability to cause plant cell death when needed which is also a self-defense strategy.
You see, programmed cell death (PCD) in plants is a crucial component of development and defense mechanisms. PCD would restrict the spread of pathogens like fungi or insect pests, or if tissues have become old and inefficient. Multicellular organisms such as plants possess cell death-inducing systems to eliminate damaged, superfluous, and ectopic cells.
In a 2007 study published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry, Japanese researchers were able to demonstrate that cannabinoids have the ability to induce necrotic cell death through mitochondrial dysfunction in the leaf cells of cannabis. They concluded that cannabinoids may contribute to the promotion of cell death, which is usually induced at the final step of the leaf senescence (biological aging) process.
These crucial self-defense functions of cannabinoids and how they evolved over millions of years offer a glimpse into the complexities of this ancient plant. Although we don’t know exactly why cannabis began to produce these chemical compounds in the first place, we can deduce that they play some sort of protective role. Plus, the fact that they exist and the fact that they are medically beneficial for humans makes them all the more fascinating.
Cannabinoids may have been around for millions of years, but we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding what they are, why they work, and how they can heal the human body.
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