Cannabis glandular trichomes alter morphology and metabolite content during flower maturation

Published: August 30, 2019

Abstract: The cannabis leaf is iconic, but it is the flowers of cannabis that are consumed for the psychoactive and medicinal effects of their specialized metabolites. Cannabinoid metabolites, together with terpenes, are produced in glandular trichomes. Superficially, stalked and sessile trichomes in cannabis only differ in size and whether they have a stalk. The objectives of this study were: to define each trichome type using patterns of autofluorescence and secretory cell numbers, to test the hypothesis that stalked trichomes develop from sessile-like precursors, and to test whether metabolic specialization occurs in cannabis glandular trichomes.

A two-photon microscopy technique using glandular trichome intrinsic autofluorescence was developed which demonstrated that stalked glandular trichomes possessed blue autofluorescence correlated with high cannabinoid levels. These stalked trichomes had 12–16 secretory disc cells and strongly monoterpene-dominant terpene profiles. In contrast, sessile trichomes on mature flowers and vegetative leaves possessed red-shifted autofluorescence, eight secretory disc cells and less monoterpene-dominant terpene profiles. Moreover, intrinsic autofluorescence patterns and disc cell numbers supported a developmental model where stalked trichomes develop from apparently sessile trichomes.

Transcriptomes of isolated floral trichomes revealed strong expression of cannabinoid and terpene biosynthetic genes, as well as uncharacterized genes highly co-expressed with CBDA synthase. Identification and characterization of two previously unknown and highly expressed monoterpene synthases highlighted the metabolic specialization of stalked trichomes for monoterpene production. These unique properties and highly expressed genes of cannabis trichomes determine the medicinal, psychoactive and sensory properties of cannabis products.