Industrial Hemp Research

June 2015 Media release
One of Southern Cross Plant Science's exciting projects, aimed at enhancing regional sustainability, involves exploring the potential of industrial hemp, by identifying and characterising genetic variation that can contribute to economically sustainable production. This pre-breeding research is carried out under licences from the NSW government, is based on extensive genetic resources, and will draw on a range of expertise at SCU.

SCPS and Ecofibre Lifesciences (ELS), based in Maleny, Queensland, have established a partnership to establish, curate and characterise the unique Ecofibre germplasm collection to underpin global development of industrial hemp. The original base collection of hemp genetic resources includes a wide range of material from all continents of the world, including the centre of genetic diversity in Asia, and from China in particular.

A key aim of current projects is to exploit the wide genetic base of hemp to:

  • Extend the latitudinal range over which hemp may effectively be grown
  • Identify and characterise genetic variation that can contribute to added value end-use products
  • Maximise the use of the internal 'hurd' fibre, and value of seed, oils and outer fibre
  • Work with other research institutions to identify unique characteristics in hemp that are technically useful to general manufacturing and industry.

Although hemp is an ancient crop, and was a key part of the economy of many nations worldwide, it has missed out on the 'Green Revolution' in crop science that massively increased yields since WWII. SCPS is now working with Ecofibre and researchers elsewhere to redress this.

Approaches being taken include:

  • Development of specialised facilities for regeneration of germplasm that affords a high level of pollen "contraception" between chambers. This is a proprietary, parallel, closed-loop filtered system developed by Ecofibre
  • Establishment of a database to bring together data from all sources about hemp germplasm collections here and elsewhere
  • Characterisation of flowering time and morphological differences (habit, vigour, male/female proportions) between accessions
  • Genetic analysis of chemotypes and development of DNA markers for pre-breeding

This provides an exciting opportunity to explore the various adaptations within the Cannabis genepool for industrial hemp, particularly in terms of flowering requirements and latitude adaptation, but also for many other phenotypic traits. The eastern states of Australia provide a particular advantage compared with other countries in the world for field trialling and evaluation of germplasm, with latitudes ranging from Tasmania (42 S) to Northern Queensland (17 S). The collection represents extensive genetic variation fibre, seed composition and physical phenotypes.

  • SCPS operates a dedicated Analytical Research Laboratory (ARL) that carries out routine screening of commercially generated hemp plant tissue to meet the requirements and obligations of licensed growers' for sampling and analysis of low THC hemp under the Hemp Industry Act 2008.
  • The ARL also has the expertise and experience to characterise many other plant components, including fatty acids and essential oils
  • Development of DNA markers to accelerate the breeding process (enabling early seedling selection of key characteristics)
  • SCPS is well placed to carry out additional research on marker assisted selection, genome wide selection (GWAS) and study of genotype by environment (GxE) interactions. SCPS has state of the art genomics and bioinformatics facilities including our Illumina DNA sequencing platform.
  • Subsequent field testing at different latitudes to identify variation in flowering time - this variation is under genetic control, and much information from other plants and crops can now be transferred to hemp in order to optimise flowering time.
  • Alongside its analytical chemistry capability, SCU has new Engineering laboratories and equipment for characterising physical properties, which will be used to identify new end uses.
  • Modern breeding will allow a shuffling of the genes between drug types and hemp types, and DNA markers will enable introduction of beneficial characteristics from the drug varieties whilst guaranteeing Industrial Hemp THC levels.

SCPS initially received funding of $95,000 for this project from a 'Researchers in Business' grant through the Australian government's Enterprise Connect initiative, co-funded by Ecofibre. Ecofibre Life Science has also invested in sponsorship of a PhD project from 2013 and an Honours scholarship in 2014.

Scientists at SCU have world-leading expertise in crop genetics and genomics, and are in contact with researchers elsewhere (UK, Europe, USA) to apply the latest technologies to accelerate the development of modern hemp cultivars able to be cultivated in different latitudes.

The industrial hemp development program fits well with the wider SCPS interests and expertise in pre-breeding genetics, quantitative genetics, genomics, data management, agronomy and raw materials quality. Other programs from which SCPS draws on experience and expertise include those for Brassica crops (mustard, canola), rice and some recently domesticated sub-tropical crops such as Macadamia and tea-tree

All facilities and operations at SCPS are managed under strict operating procedures in line with licences granted for handling and storage of plant material, chemical extracts and standards.
THC = Tetrahydrocannabinol




Professor Graham King: