Oregon State University demonstrates strength in hemp and hops research with NIFA grant to study essence of Cannabacea plants


By Heidi Happonen


multi-college collaboration, including scientists Global Hemp Innovation Center, College of Agriculture, College of Science, College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University and the USDA recently received $638,000 to study the comparative genomics and metabolomics of hemp and hops to unravel the complexities of aroma and flavor. Part of a national $5 million grant to study the synthesis of plant-derived high-value chemicals and ingredients for use in foods, pharmaceuticals, and other natural products, this project is being led by David Hendrix in the College of Science along with Kelly Vining in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

According to Hendrix, hops and hemp are both part of the same Cannabaceae plant family and share similar metabolic pathways related to volatile compounds responsible for aroma.

“There’s some evidence that these plants have some of the most diverse range of aromas,” Hendrix explained.

In contrast, he added, monocultures like tulips may have many varieties but they all smell quite similar.

The crux of Hendrix’s and Vining’s research will explore the connection between different metabolic compounds and genomes 50 different hemp and hop varieties using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GCMS)—an analytical method that combines the features of gas-chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify different substances within a test sample.

One goal is to better understand how different gene variants contribute to the production of different compounds to identify what is the genetic determinant of volitive compounds to help breeders better meet specific needs of select varieties for different markets requiring specific flavors and aromas.

90 percent of hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, and Oregon is one of the largest hemp producers in the country. Its location on the 45th parallel is often cited as one reason why there is such diversity in agricultural production, with some of the most favorable conditions specific for Cannabaceae plants like hemp and hops.

Hendrix describes himself as a computational biologist who has studied the hop genome for 10 years, and will work with Kelly Vining, an expert in hemp genomics, to explore the genomic aspects of the study.

She has been working with a team since 2019 to better understand the DNA of hemp, raising the bar for public knowledge about the newly decriminalized plant. Working at a molecular level to uncover the components of the plant will help the industry create tailored plants to meet specific needs for food and possibly medicinal applications.

“There is still so much left to learn about hemp,” Vining said. “This grant will give us an opportunity to explore more of the unknown aspects of it along with hops.”

Photos by Stephen Ward

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