Now we know where the smell of cannabis comes from: the science and the future

Reject for some, pleasant for others, the acrid smell of cannabis flowers (Cannabis sativa L.) resembles that given off by small carnivorous mammals called “skunks” – “skunk” – that live mainly in America. Cousins ​​of the European polecats, they secrete a foul-smelling liquid with their anal glands in case of threat. Regarding cannabis, what are the molecules responsible for this special smell? So far, there was no convincing answer. If the studies on the components and effects of this plant (psychotropic or therapeutic – against neuropathic pain or certain forms of epilepsy in particular) are innumerable, they were very few in this area. But American researchers have just solved the mystery. Using advanced techniques, they finally identified the substance in question.

An aroma of great complexity

What is not an easy task! “More than 200 aromatic compounds have been included in cannabis, revealing the complexity of its smell,” the study authors recall. Like the organoleptic properties of wine, those of cannabis are the result of a multitude of molecules. From the family of terpenes – a class of hydrocarbons – and terpenoids – more chemically complex – in particular. They are the source of the smell of many plants such as eucalyptus, cinnamon or cloves. Mostly in cannabis, they produce woody, floral or even lemon notes, more or less assertive depending on the different varieties of cannabis. Therefore, to eliminate the chemical origin of the “skunk smell”, little research has been done on this type of hydrocarbons. However, without success. No combination of terpenes has been able to reproduce the characteristic fragrance.

Olfactory tests with trained experts

Working for Abstrax Tech (a Californian company specialized in the production of terpenes from cannabis and other plants), a team of chemists focused their attention on another family of molecules: volatile sulfur compounds (CVS), present in large quantities and less important. They began by smelling 13 varieties of cannabis to a panel of four, asking them to rate the intensity of the skunk smell from 0 to 10. The extracts from these 13 varieties were then analyzed with state-of-the-art instruments. That is, two-dimensional gas chromatography, coupled to three types of detectors that work simultaneously: a mass spectrometer, a flame ionization detector and a sulfur chemiluminescence detector. A device that allowed “to detect, identify and quantify substances in very low concentrations that would otherwise be extremely difficult to demonstrate,” the researchers emphasize.

Some of these compounds have never been identified in nature.

Thus they discovered a set of CVS present in small amounts: from a few tenths of a thousandth of a microgram to a few hundredths of a microgram … in a single microgram of sample! This is the first time that these volatile sulfur compounds, seven in total, have been detected in cannabis. And “some had never been identified in nature,” the California scientists note in a publication by the American Chemical Society. Among these seven compounds, the one that predominates is called 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol or more simply “prenylthiol”. And the higher its concentration in a cannabis flower, the more the expert panel was able to detect the famous skunk scent! If the amounts are still very low compared to other molecules, it strongly influences the smell of this plant.

The seven sulfur compounds identified in cannabis. Credit: Iain WH Oswald & / American Chemical Society

Something important was missing

“Our data conclusively establish a correlation between this new family of CVS and the pungent aroma of cannabis,” said Iain Oswald, lead author of the study, in an Abstract Tech statement. of this plant, specifies Josh Del Rosso, a cannabis grower in Santa Bárbara (California), who participated in this work. Terpenes were thought to be the main source of the pungent odor, now we know it comes from this new class of CVS. “

Maximum concentration at the time of drying

By measuring the amounts of CVS at different stages of plant growth, the scientists were able to see that they increased significantly a few weeks before flowering. Also, they appear at their peak when the flowers dry out, then decline dramatically after ten days of storage. “These results show that growers are in a race against time to deliver quality products,” says Kevin Koby, Executive Director of Abstract Tech. However, our data will set new standards for growers and distributors to preserve and protect key compounds. , in processing, packaging and storage. Most importantly, they will help manufacturers optimize their products and take cannabis quality to the next level. “

Evolution of the concentration of sulfur compounds as a function of time. Credit: Iain WH Oswald & / American Chemical Society

Possible medicinal benefits

Medical applications are also envisaged. Because these sulfur compounds, prenylthiol in particular, have molecular structures that are also found in garlic. However, these, which contribute to the flavor of the seasoning, protect against cardiovascular complications and reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Thanks to prenylthiol, cannabis could also have these effects. “I hope our work prompts other researchers to find out if these compounds give cannabis additional therapeutic properties to those we already know about,” says Josh Del Rosso.

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