A infectious pathogen lurking within California's marijuana farms is targeting cannabis plants, lying undetected for months, only to ruin a crop just as it's about to be harvested. Researchers suspect that this pathogen is present in almost all marijuana farms within the state, potentially causing billions of dollars in damage to the nation's cannabis industry.

The Hop-latent viroid, or HLVd, causes cannabis plants to wither and can decrease their yield by up to 30%. Furthermore, it reduces the concentration of THC, marijuana's primary active compound, significantly diminishing the value of the affected plants.

HLVd was first observed in cannabis through two scientific studies published in 2019, which confirmed the viroid's presence in samples from a Santa Barbara marijuana farm. It has now infected at least 90% of California's cannabis cultivations, as per a 2021 estimate. The pathogen is spreading worldwide, with a recent scientific paper designating it as the "greatest concern for cannabis" growers globally.

However, a Bay Area startup has developed a novel tool they believe will halt the pathogen's proliferation.

Oakland-based Purple City Labs introduced a new HLVd test earlier this year that can be performed on-site and provide results to marijuana farmers within a few hours. This is a significant improvement over the current methods of detecting HLVd infections, which generally involve farmers sending samples to labs and awaiting results for days or even weeks.

The company asserts that this on-site testing could be crucial in curbing the global pathogen's spread, as it enables farmers to swiftly identify infected plants.

Luke Horst, director of business development for Purple City Genetics, said, "We didn't just identify a great test that is accurate, but it's [also] easy to use and doesn't require a high level of expertise. You can take microbiology to the public and put it in their hands... It's important for people to have this type of testing."

A stealthy menace on marijuana farms​

HLVd has likely been infiltrating cannabis farms for over a decade, but initially, cultivators were unsure of what was damaging their crops. Dubbed "dudding," the affliction would only manifest towards the end of a plant's life cycle, altering its form and reducing its active compound production, such as THC, by up to 50%. This impact can devastate a crop's retail value.

HLVd's delayed symptoms make it a particularly insidious threat to contemporary cannabis farming. Farmers typically cultivate cannabis by cutting small pieces from a single plant, often referred to as the "mother," which are then used to propagate hundreds of new plants.

These mother plants are deliberately prevented from flowering, enabling them to continuously produce offspring. However, this also postpones the appearance of HLVd symptoms, allowing a single infected mother plant to quietly spread the pathogen for months without exhibiting any signs of infection.

HLVd was initially identified in hop plants, a close relative of cannabis, in the 1980s. Today, it is commonly found in hop farms, where it reduces the production of aromatic compounds used primarily to flavor beer.

By 2021, following its initial discovery in cannabis in 2019, the viral pathogen had infiltrated at least 90% of California's marijuana farms, as indicated by a survey that examined 200,000 California cannabis plants. The viroid has now extended its reach to marijuana farms worldwide, from Massachusetts to Europe.

Rapid Results Inspired by Pandemic Solutions​

Ali Bektaş, CEO of Purple City Labs and lead author on a 2019 paper identifying HLVd in cannabis, began working on an HLVd test after joining Purple City Genetics, a renowned Oakland-based cannabis nursery, in 2021. Initially hired to assist in developing new cannabis strains, Bektaş soon recognized that HLVd testing was a significant challenge for the nursery.

With hundreds of samples sent to labs each week, the nursery often faced delays of several weeks before receiving results, enabling the pathogen to spread rampantly. Bektaş, a Ph.D. holder in microbial ecology from UC Berkeley, recalled a testing method called LAMP that he had worked on during his studies and had gained popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike PCR tests, LAMP technology is cost-effective and can be accurately operated by almost anyone.

Bektaş believed LAMP technology could be applied to combat the viral threat to cannabis. Collaborating with the Oakland Genomics Center, he developed a straightforward LAMP test for HLVd, enabling the nursery to rapidly test thousands of plants and obtain results within hours.

Soon, other industry farms began inquiring about using the test. Bektaş explained, "We didn't develop a product to sell it. We made it to use in the nursery. But it was just perfect for this particular problem. We weren't even advertising it, but people would hear about it, and they would start asking us if they could also use it."

Now retailing the technology at $10 per test, the company has begun distributing it globally. Bektaş recently traveled to Spain to showcase the product, where he discovered HLVd in a plant during the first test. "They assumed it was going to be clean because it was in Spain. But we tested it twice, and both times it came back positive," he said.