The COVID-19 pandemic has sped up the evolution of the industry.

Some operations are cutting costs and looking towards automation to streamline facilities. Others are upgrading equipment, revalidating methods, and refocusing with an eye for higher lab efficiency. No doubt consolidation was inevitable for the industry and the pandemic has certainly accelerated the timeline for some.

The post COVID-19 landscape will incorporate new tools and technologies designed to address challenges in both the lab and the field. Such new approaches may be essential as we move to higher standards of safety, efficiency, and automation.

We take a moment to explore emerging product trends -- from remote field testing, to genotype analysis, to microbial and contaminants analysis, and more.


Cannabis Cultivation

With the challenges of COVID-19, it’s become apparent that many cultivation operations will need to instill higher levels of safety and automation into workflows moving forward. Products are already emerging to safeguard workers and automate certain tasks, both for indoor and outdoor grow facilities.

  • Systems are now available to track: lighting, irrigation, climate control, and other important variables. Technology for monitoring plant health, growth rates, and crop yields are assisting in controlling breeding and genetics.
  • Automation of irrigation systems in particular can cut resource losses and limit the need for hands on adjustments.
  • Remote environmental controllers can monitor irrigation, humidity, air circulation, and even nutrient-dosing control, customized to each indoor facility and in some cases operated via mobile capabilities.

Field Testing

Field testing to ensure plants continue to maintain consistent cannabinoid production is essential to growing high-yield, and in the case of hemp, legal crops. Although HPLC is currently the gold standard for potency analysis in the lab, emerging technologies are targeting potency testing at the source, the plant.

  • Numerous studies have looked at the use of Infrared, FTIR, and Raman spectroscopy analysis of plants. The techniques are non-destructive, tests can be rather easily performed, and in most cases the devices can be portable or handheld.
  • Such handheld devices are routinely used in other industries including: environmental monitoring, soil testing, mine safety, materials analysis, and forensics.
  • Research into the feasibility of these technologies and the development of new products has brought field-based testing closer to reality – with some products already on the market.

Genetic Testing

The chemotypic profile of a plant involves production of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds specific for a given plant type. This profile is shaped by the grow conditions, moisture, soil composition, fertilizers, and other factors. At the root of the chemotype is the genotype, or the genetics of the plant which dictate what compounds can be produced and which may be absent.

  • Quantitative PCR (qPCR) has emerged as a preferred method for genotypic analysis. Kits and methods are now available to rapidly screen plants for sex determination, saving huge potential resource losses coming at the hands of male plants and unwanted fertilization.
  • The ability to rapidly screen for genetic markers enables the technique to identify traits such as cannabinoid ratios, to ensure the plants have the potential to produce CBD or THC at the levels desired.
  • Beyond ratios, new microarrary technologies enable comprehensive profiling of markers for cannabinoids, terpenes, and other targets, uncovering the entire genetic profile behind a strain of interest.
  • New products are emerging to enable rapid sampling of plants in the field or the greenhouse, allowing efficient transfer into the lab for qPCR testing.

Microbial Testing

Microbial analysis is a big deal as the presence of unwanted bacterial and fungal pathogens can wreck havoc on grow and production operations. Public health risks particularly among medicinal cannabis users is an issue that requires strict screening methods and procedures as well.

  • Aspergillus testing has emerged as a critical measure to ensure safety in cannabis products, and sensitivity and specificity is essential in determining pathogenic from non-pathogenic strains.
  • A number of qPCR-based techniques have been developed to identify pathogen-specific markers among plant samples.
  • Several of these methods and kits have been validated in collaboration with advisory bodies such as the AOAC, CASP, and USP.
  • As peer-reviewed research and consensus methods emerge, standardized Aspergillus testing will become a requirement for all production facilities.

Extraction

Always an evolving area, refinements in extraction technologies are aiming to increase yields, preserve extract integrity, and increase solubility and bioavailability of extracts.

  • Sonication, cold water, and even pressurized hot water techniques are emerging to remove solvents from the equation, increase environmental safety, and to enhance efficiency and costs.
  • Investigations into common CBD extraction processes and optimum CBD stability are particularly important as wide disparities have been reported between dosages and actual CBD concentrations in products.
  • Colloidal chemistry, nano-emulsion, and nano-encapsulation techniques are being pursued to address solubility issues of non-polar cannabinoids and extracts – with the goal of increasing integrity and bioavailability of cannabinoid preparations.

Potency Testing

Testing for potency has been arguably the most active are of development, bringing HPLC, GC, LC-MS and GC-MS, and other techniques to the forefront of method development and validation.

  • AOAC, an analytical standards organization, reviews submitted methods and is currently rolling out accepted consensus standards for testing extracts, edibles, and consumables. Such consensus methods will instill harmonization between labs and contribute overall to QC/QA for potency across the industry.
  • Techniques such as supercritical fluid chromatography (SFC) are seeing use as solvent-free, green alternatives to more common solvent-based separations.
  • Ongoing research is examining the solubility, thermal stability, photosensitivity, and other chemical characteristics of CBD, THC, and other purified cannabinoids to establish the most effective methods for production, storage, and use in products.

Contaminants Testing

Pesticides are a constant concern. The lists of allowed pesticides and detection levels are dictated by each state and regulation are often in flux.

  • Commercial vendors are taking a stronger role in providing materials, standards, methods, and instrumentation for state pesticide testing.
  • Along with these advanced methods, are sample prep and matrix depletion products aimed at reducing background in often complex cannabis materials.
  • New methods and products extend to edibles and consumables as well, aimed at reduced lipids, waxes, and other ingredients from sample results.

Summary

The pandemic has motivated many to consider changes in processes, efficiencies, and automation. Emerging technologies, at the grow site and in the testing lab, may prove essential in helping cannabis operations navigate this new and changing landscape.


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