Sonoma County genetics testing lab LeafWorks part of $2.7M from California to study cannabis

LeafWorks is about to embark on an Earthshaking journey to uncover and chronicle the genetic makeup of cannabis plants, with the help of $2.7 million in state funding awarded last month to a five-member coalition of organizations, of which LeakWorks is among.

The award — with LeafWorks receiving about half the amount to examine the genetics — is the largest of its kind granted from the California Department of Cannabis Control, the state confirmed.

The Sebastopol genetic research firm founded in 2016 by former University of Georgia academics Eleanor Kuntz and Kerin Law will use the funding to conduct a study titled “Legacy Cannabis Genetics: People and Their Plants, a Community-Driven Study.”

Think of how winemakers covet holding precise appellations to produce and market their high-end brands. Now apply it to cannabis farming, which has, up to this point, shown its propensity to produce certain, often successful, strains without keeping a universal record.

The study aims to preserve the history, value and diversity of California’s legacy cannabis genetics in a new chapter in cultivation.

“This really matters because all plants have different chemicals, and we need to know them,” LeafWorks CEO Kuntz said. “The long-term vision is to expand genetics to add value to the botanical supply chain.”

With 15 employees (depending on the time of year) — six of whom hold doctorate degrees — working in the Sonoma County genetic testing lab serving 500-some clients, the grant requires completion of the study by two years.

“This grant is nice as a way the state can get a handle on what genetics are (in cannabis plants),” Kuntz said of the community-based research study deemed the first of its kind.

The project won’t just document the makeup of the plants. The research also intends to examine what is the effect of the illegal cannabis market, as well as analyze ”the impacts of existing and potential policy frameworks on legacy genetics,” state cannabis department spokesman David Hafner said.

This is critical given the role the illicit market has played in stymieing the legal industry by undercutting the crop’s going price. California’s tax structure is being blamed by industry insiders for contributing to illegal sales. The legal market faced industry collapse when the wholesale price plummeted.

The state hopes to “enhance market opportunities for California’s (legal) commercial cannabis farmers and breeders moving forward,” Hafner added.

To accomplish these goals, LeafWorks has tapped into some high-level support.

With a little help

Another cannabis industry expert who also hails from academia, Bill Silver touts the work the genetics testing company is doing and will use to advance the industry. Silver was a former CEO at CannaCraft, a large cannabis producer in Santa Rosa.

“What they are doing requires complex science and knowledge in their field,” said Silver, who agreed to advise LeafWorks as independent counsel but declined to answer whether he’s paid.

“We’ll have the database of all strains in a California study that combines our oral history with our genetic history. Then, we’ll know what grows well here in a record, a time capsule,” Silver said.

The company secured at one point $1 million in investment funding a few years ago for its operation, which uses science with an appreciation for using data from plant DNA as a mantra for its work. Call it chemistry for better living. For example, a grower may manipulate a seed varietal to gain a patent.

Genine Coleman, the executive director of the Origins Council, a Northern California nonprofit research institute that’s part of the grant award and study, commended the project for its collaboration.

“It’s an interesting process to have the community collectively working on it,” she said. “There’s been a deficit of research (up to this point).”

To industry front-liners like Coleman, participants will be viewed as pioneers, forging a new path of scientific research with old, tried-and-true cultivation methods to make cannabis history.

Sam Rodriguez, policy director at Good Farmers, Great Neighbors, a state cultivation advocacy group, knows very well what can be gained when the worlds of cannabis and science collide.

Rodriguez, as the assistant director for Congressional Affairs at the Office of Science for the U.S. Department of Energy, helped spearhead collaborative research for the Human Genome Project at the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek.

“We want to (learn and document) through the genetics of plants for experimenting and repeating the same sequencing of strains, then we can properly manage the plants,” he said.

The success story has already been written in a different industry in our own backyard — wine.

“Wine is 20 years ahead of us,” he said.

Now it’s the cannabis industry’s turn.

“We’ll recognize, in the study, that it’s important for peer review to validate it. Yes, we’re doing it. But it’s equally important to provide all the data and how we studied, what the tools were and how we sequenced (the data). Then, we ask: ‘Could this plant be replicated?’ he said.

To Rodriguez, who has spent decades into cannabis cultivation, the tools and the genetic sequencing hold the key to “understanding and modifying” the composition of the plants.

“We’re completely opening up a whole new world,” he said. “It’s fascinating the entity is here in Sonoma (County).”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. She can be reached at 530-545-8662 or

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the total award is earmarked for the study with five organizations participating.

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