Cannabis sativa: Advanced plant structures.

In the Beginner series we covered the basics of Cannabis sativa and the cannabinoids.  But where are the cannabinoids produced?  How are Cannabis plants so different from other plants?

Many plant biologists have asked these simple questions, and when they examined the leaves, stems, and flowers of Cannabis, they found structures that looked very similar to secretory cells found in other plants that secrete chemicals (think about tobacco, basil, or any other plant we consume).  What we see as a collection of fluffy flowers and small leaves on a female Cannabis plant looks very different on a cellular scale.  Using modern microscopy techniques, we can examine these structures.

Under a microscope, the world of plant biology looks very weird and mysterious, but these structures, called trichomes, are responsible for secreting the over 60 compounds that make Cannabis such a unique plant.  While this strategy of secreting noxious substances is not uncommon in the plant world where you cannot run away from predators, the collection of cannabinoids secreted is unique to plants in the Cannabaceae family.

Cannabinoid Receptors

We know that Cannabis produces cannabinoids, and we know that these molecules can have very dramatic effects on us. This begs the question: How do we detect cannabinoids, and what is the effect of cannabinoids on our cells – on our bodies?

To answer this we have to establish a general concept in biology; that molecules can interact with cells in our bodies, and produce a response. The most commonly used example to illustrate this effect is the “fight or flight” reaction we feel in response to the hormone epinephrine, previously known as adrenaline. During exercise or intense emotional states (see fear) our bodies respond by releasing epinephrine into our blood stream where it permeates tissues throughout the body. On a cellular level, this hormone is identified by receptors on the outside of cells which have a specific structure that can identify the epinephrine molecule.

What does this have to do with cannabinoids? Just as epinephrine has receptors (see adrenergic receptors) on the outside of cells that await the hormone, cannabinoids utilize receptors in a similar manner. These cannabinoid receptors are essentially like a switch-board operator, or in modern terms, a cell phone tower, that can recognize the specific structure of the cannabinoids and pass on a message.

If we were to look at the outside of a cell and zoom in to the protein level, we would see many different proteins embedded in the outer layer (lipid membrane). Some of these proteins are exposed mostly on the outside layer, some mostly on the inside layer, but in order to be an effective communication tool between the exterior and interior of the cell, many receptors are trans-membrane proteins. These proteins have the bulk of their structure between the two lipid layers of the cell membrane with small portions protruding into the exterior and interior of the cell in order to receive and transmit information.

There is a great deal known about these cannabinoid receptors called CB1 and CB2. The human CB1 receptor is composed of 472 amino acids (the building blocks for all proteins), and has seven trans-membrane domains. The CB2 receptor is similar but much smaller with only 360 amino acids, and responds very differently to cannabinoids than the CB1 receptor. Although a great deal is known about the structure and different abilities of CB1 and CB2, most research today is focused on how these receptors transmit information to the rest of the cell.

Cannabinoid Receptors

Just as is the case with epinephrine receptors, cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body. CB1 receptors are found in brain tissue and neural cells within the central nervous system. CB2 receptors are found to occur in a much broader fashion throughout the body. Most CB2 receptors are found in cells related to the immune system; however, cells in the heart, lung, prostate, uterus, pancreas, spleen, testis, and brain all seem to have CB2 receptors on their surface. The presence of these receptors in nearly every cell type, coupled with the over 60 different types of naturally occurring cannabinoids makes for intriguing, but complex, research questions.

Pharmacology of Cannabinoids

  • What are some known effects of cannabinoids on human physiology?
  • Effect on CB1 receptors – reduction of Calcium at pre-synaptic neuron leading to reduction in neurotransmitter release
  • Endocannabinoids – we produce our own cannabinoids, and our own enzymes to remove cannabinoids from the receptors.

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