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What are cannabis terpenes?

Discover marijuana terpenes and cannabis CBD

Terpenes are aromatic compounds produced by various plants, including cannabis. Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in the potential therapeutic benefits of terpenes, as these compounds could influence not only the aroma, but also the effect of cannabis. In this article we will tell you about the exciting world of marijuana terpenes and CBD marijuana and CBD cannabis .

Cannabis sativa and its great variety of compounds

One of the characteristics of the Cannabis sativa plant is its extraordinary capacity to produce various compounds. These are very many compounds that are generally classified into primary and secondary metabolites.

Primary metabolites are those absolutely essential for plant growth and reproduction, such as fibers, which provide structure and sustenance, or sugars, which provide nourishment to cells.

But then, plants have abundant compounds whose function is not always known. This large group of phytochemicals is called secondary metabolites, and is where terpenes are found. Secondary metabolites are those compounds produced by plants that are not directly related to the growth, development, or reproduction of the organism.

What is the role of terpenes in cannabis?

Terpenes can provide an advantage to the organism by increasing the plant’s chance of survival or fecundity [1, 2]. For example, secondary metabolites produced by plants serve as a defense against herbivory or diseases [5, 6].

These secondary metabolites are not unique to plants, but are produced by a large number of organisms, including bacteria, plants, animals and fungi [3, 4], but are quite specific to the organism that produces them.

You may be interested in: Effects of terpenes in cannabis

What other components does cannabis produce?

The plant of Cannabis sativa as I was telling you, produces many secondary metabolites. Some of them are the cannabinoids such as CBD and THC, those that interact with our endocannabinoid system.

Cannabinoids are quite specific compounds produced by the cannabis plant [7]. Yes there are other plants that also produce cannabinoids, and they also interact with our endocannabinoid system [8, 9], but these are not related to the cannabinoids produced by C. sativa [7].

The Cannabis sativa plant produces a wide variety of compounds including cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids. These compounds can influence the effect produced by marijuana.

Defining cannabis terpenes

Terpenes are a large and diverse group of organic compounds (those based on carbon) derived from a five-carbon molecule called isoprene. They are produced by living organisms and more than 30,000 terpenic compounds have been described.

Their function in plants may be, for example, to attract pollinating animals or seed dispersers, to inhibit the growth of other competing plants, or to prevent herbivory, among other functions [13-15].

Classification of terpenes

The classification of terpenes is based on the number of carbons they contain: those with ten carbons are called monoterpenes, those with fifteen carbons are sesquiterpenes, and those with twenty, diterpenes [16].

These three common terpenes in marijuana that I mentioned above: limonene and beta-myrcene, are ten-carbon monoterpenes, and beta-caryophyllene is a fifteen-carbon sesquiterpene.

Terpenes from marijuana… and many other plants!

You may be surprised to learn that the three most common terpenes produced by Cannabis sativa are also produced by other plants: mango fruit produces beta-myrcene in black pepper we find beta-caryophyllene and lemons are rich in limonene . This is also the case with alpha and beta pinene produced by pine trees, linalool linalool from lavender, and alpha humulene from hops.

Plants such as mango, lavender or pine trees produce the same terpenes as cannabis.

Cannabis terpenes: all these compounds… and more!

The interesting thing about the Cannabis sativa plant is that it produces all of these compounds and more. Different strains of cannabis differ in the number, abundance and rate at which they produce these terpenes [12].

It is possible that the terpene content also influences the effect of marijuana and the sensations produced in the body by its consumption.

The extraordinary thing about the Cannabis sativa plant is that it is capable of producing a wide variety of terpenes, resulting in different aromas and, possibly, effects.

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Terpenes – a possible phenotype to classify?

These terpenes, in addition to providing the plant with the signature odors of several of the marijuana strain names (e.g. Lemon Skunk or Super Lemon Haze), could also serve to classify the different commercial strains of weed [12, 17-20].

It has been found that terpenes could serve to group strains or types of marijuana, being a more reliable measure of grouping than industry-assigned names such as “sativa” or “indica” [12]. To delve deeper into this popular debate, do not miss the post on the differences between sativa and indica .

The fine line between terpenes and cannabinoids

Although terpenes are much more volatile than cannabinoids [21], I think the difference between cannabinoids and terpenes is quite fuzzy. Maybe I’m in error, and may the chemists correct me, but I think a big difference between terpenes and cannabinoids lies in the tools used to measure them.

How are cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis determined?

Cannabinoids and terpenes can be measured by chromatography, a technique where a mixture of compounds is separated. However, given their volatility, terpenes can only be measured usinggas chromatography (GC), where the compounds can evaporate without decomposition, i.e. without separation [22].

On the contrary, in order for cannabinoids to be measured by GC, they must be heated, and therefore, this chromatography only presents the result of cannabinoids in their neutral, non-acidic form.

Cannabinoids, unlike terpenes, can also be measured using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), where both the acidic and neutral forms are measured [22-24].

What are the similarities between terpenes and cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids and terpenes have many things in common. Both compounds share a biochemical pathway, i.e., there is a point in the metabolic pathway that leads to the production of both cannabinoids and terpenes as they both use the same precursor compounds [10, 25, 26]. In addition, some terpenes can also interact with our endocannabinoid system [27, 28].

Cannabinoids and terpenes share the same upstream biochemical pathway, i.e., at some point the precursor compounds are the same.

Finally, some propose that, cannabinoid and terpene genes act in a network of cannabinoids and terpenes. [29] (what in biology we call pleiotropy and epitropy) to generate this complex phenotype of secondary metabolites. All this opens the door to an exciting world, in which the terpenes of marijuana become much more prominent and cannabinoids are no longer the main actors in the therapeutic effects of cannabis.

Possible therapeutic uses of terpenes

Many of these terpenes have potential therapeutic applications, including anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antiseptic, astringent, and digestive properties , among others [15]. For example, humulene appears to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties [30, 31]. Linalool also seems to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties [32], but also antidepressant [33] and is one of the most used terpenes in yoga classes. When we clean our house we use products containing alpha and beta pinene for their antimicrobial properties [34].

Terpenes are produced by many plants besides cannabis, and these are not related.

Finally, something that has always amazed me about the terpenes produced by the Cannabis sativa plant is that it shares these components with many other plants both near and far. For example, hops, an essential ingredient of beer and the closest extant species to C. sativa who share a common ancestor that lived approximately 25 million years ago, also produce alpha humulene [35].

But, with pines, which also produce alpha and beta pinene, it shares an ancestor that lived approximately 250 million years ago! That is, pines and the C. sativa plant have a very distant relationship and yet produce the same compounds. And again, an interesting thing about this Cannabis sativa plant is that it produces all of these compounds, and more!

Concerns about marijuana terpenes and cannabis research

One terpene unknown that I would like to know is the reason why the Cannabis sativa plant produces all these compounds, i.e., the ecological function that terpenes fulfill. Some suggest that the plant produces them to defend itself against ultraviolet radiation, others to combat herbivory [36, 37], for example.

And something I have heard out there, without any scientific confirmation is that, when the plant is grown outside, it produces a greater quantity and diversity of compounds, including terpenes. This could be explained by the instability of the crops outside, exposed to temperature changes, sunshine, hail, diseases and insects, among other dangers from which they would have to defend themselves.

It seems logical that these plants produce more terpenes as a defense against inclement weather than those plants grown indoors, with standardized conditions of light, nutrients, temperature, etc.

These are some questions that can be answered by experiments. I hope you liked this little review about cannabis terpenes.

Referencias bibliográficas

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2. Vining, L.C., Functions of secondary metabolites. Annual review of microbiology, 1990. 44(1): p. 395-427.

3. Wink, M., Plant breeding: importance of plant secondary metabolites for protection against pathogens and herbivores. Theoretical and applied genetics, 1988. 75(2): p. 225-233.

4. Bennett, R.N. and R.M. Wallsgrove, Secondary metabolites in plant defence mechanisms. New phytologist, 1994. 127(4): p. 617-633.

5. Hadacek, F., Secondary metabolites as plant traits: current assessment and future perspectives. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 2002. 21(4): p. 273-322.

6. Forbey, J.S., et al., Exploitation of secondary metabolites by animals: A response to homeostatic challenges. Integrative and comparative biology, 2009. 49(3): p. 314-328.

7. van Velzen, R. and M.E. Schranz, Origin and evolution of the cannabinoid oxidocyclase gene family. bioRxiv, 2020.

8. Bauer, R., K. Woelkart, and O.M. Salo-Ahen, CB receptor ligands from plants. Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry, 2008. 8(3): p. 173-186.

9. Gertsch, J., R.G. Pertwee, and V. Di Marzo, Phytocannabinoids beyond the Cannabis plant-do they exist? British journal of pharmacology, 2010. 160(3): p. 523-529.

10. Booth, J.K. and J. Bohlmann, Terpenes in Cannabis sativa-From plant genome to humans. . Plant Science, 2019. 284: p. 67-72.

11. Gershenzon, J. and N. Dudareva, The function of terpene natural products in the natural world. Nature chemical biology, 2007. 3(7): p. 408-414.

12. Smith, C.J., et al., The Phytochemical Diversity of Commercial Cannabis in the United States. bioRxiv, 2021.

13. Aizpurua-Olaizola, O., et al., Evolution of the cannabinoid and terpene content during the growth of Cannabis sativa plants from different chemotypes. . Journal of natural products, 2016. 79(2): p. 324-331.

14. Chen, F., et al., The family of terpene synthases in plants: a mid-size family of genes for specialized metabolism that is highly diversified throughout the kingdom. The Plant Journal, 2011. 66(1): p. 212-229.

15. Cox-Georgian, D., et al., Therapeutic and medicinal uses of terpenes in Medicinal Plants. 2019, Springer. p. 333-359.

16. Davis, E.M. and R. Croteau, Cyclization enzymes in the biosynthesis of monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and diterpenes. Biosynthesis, 2000: p. 53-95.

17. Henry, P., et al., Predicting chemovar cluster and variety verification in vegetative cannabis accessions using targeted single nucleotide polymorphisms. PeerJ Preprints, 2018. 6: p. e27442v1.

18. Orser, C., et al., Terpenoid Chemoprofiles Distinguish Drug-type Cannabis sativa L. Cultivars in Nevada. Natural Products Chemistry and Research, 2017. 6(1).

19. Reimann-Philipp, U., et al., Cannabis Chemovar Nomenclature Misrepresents Chemical and Genetic Diversity; Survey of Variations in Chemical Profiles and Genetic Markers in Nevada Medical Cannabis Samples. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 2019.

Watts, S., et al., Cannabis labelling is associated with genetic variation in terpene synthase genes. Nature plants, 2021. 7(10): p. 1330-1334.

Bueno, J., et al., The preservation and augmentation of volatile terpenes in cannabis inflorescence. Journal of cannabis research, 2020. 2(1): p. 1-11.

22. Jiang, Z., C. Kempinski, and J. Chappell, Extraction and analysis of terpenes / terpenoids. Current protocols in plant biology, 2016. 1(2): p. 345-358.

Micalizzi, G., et al., Cannabis Sativa L.: A comprehensive review on the analytical methodologies for cannabinoids and terpenes characterization. Journal of Chromatography A, 2021. 1637: p. 461864.

24. Jin, D., et al., Classification of Cannabis cultivars marketed in Canada for medical purposes by quantification of cannabinoids and terpenes using HPLC-DAD and GC-MS. J. Anal. Bioanal. Tech, 2017. 8(01): p. 2.

25. Booth, J.K., J.E. Page, and J. Bohlmann, Terpene synthases from Cannabis sativa. . Plos one, 2017. 12(3): p. e0173911.

Booth, J.K., et al., Terpene synthases and terpene variation in Cannabis sativa. . Plant physiology, 2020. 184(1): p. 130-147.

27. Ferber, S.G., et al., The “entourage effect”: terpenes coupled with cannabinoids for the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety disorders. Current neuropharmacology, 2020. 18(2): p. 87-96.

28. LaVigne, J., R. Hecksel, and J.M. Streicher, In Defense of the “Entourage Effect”: Terpenes Found in Cannabis sativa Activate the Cannabinoid Receptor 1 In Vivo. The FASEB Journal, 2020. 34(S1): p. 1-1.

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Information on marijuana terpenes and cannabis CBD (FAQs)

What are terpenes and what are they used for?

Terpenes are a type of compounds produced by plants such as cannabis, often responsible for the smell and aroma they give off. There are other organisms that produce terpenes besides plants, such as bacteria and fungi.

What is the function of terpenes in marijuana?

In plants, such as cannabis and marijuana, terpenes appear to serve a survival function (e.g., inhibiting the growth of other competing plants, protection against herbivory) and fertility (e.g., attracting pollinators). It seems logical that these plants produce more terpenes as a defense against inclement weather than those plants grown indoors, with standardized conditions of light, nutrients, temperature, etc. In addition, terpenes also give characteristic aromas and contribute to the effect of marijuana, which is why they are highly valued components commercially. It is possible to find marijuana strains that are commercially advertised as having a certain terpene content.

What are the major terpenes in marijuana?

The most common terpenes in marijuana are beta-myrcene, beta-caryophyllene and limonene. But, in addition, many others can be found, such as humulene, linalool, alpha and beta pinene, and many more.

What is the etymology of terpene?

The term terpene originates from the Greek word terebinth, which is the ancient name given to the essence or resin extracted from pine trees, composed mainly of terpenes (mainly alpha and beta pinene). Currently, from this resin the product is obtained as turpentine or turpentine.

What is the difference between terpene and terpenoid?

The difference between terpene and terpenoid is a matter of chemistry: while terpenes are composed exclusively of carbon and hydrogen (they are hydrocarbons), terpenoids incorporate oxygen atoms in their molecule (they are oxygen-containing terpenes). In general, it is the universal, colloquial term for the aromatic compounds in cannabis, because most of them are actually terpenes: pinene, myrcene, caryophyllene, humulene and limonene, among others. On the other hand, chemically speaking, linalool, guaiol, borneol and alpha-terpineol are classified within the terpenoid group.

What is the toxicity of terpenes?

Unlike other components of cannabis such as cannabinoids, terpenes are compounds naturally present in many aromatic foods and spices, and the vast majority are recognized as safe. Some are even listed as flavoring food additives.

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Dra. Daniela Vergara
Investigadora y catedrática | Especialista en cultivos emergentes y consultora de cannabis

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