Cannabis sativa: The Plant of the Thousand and One Molecules

Front Plant Sci. 2016 Feb 4;7:19. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2016.00019. eCollection 2016.


Cannabis sativa L. is an important herbaceous species originating from Central Asia, which has been used in folk medicine and as a source of textile fiber since the dawn of times. This fast-growing plant has recently seen a resurgence of interest because of its multi-purpose applications: it is indeed a treasure trove of phytochemicals and a rich source of both cellulosic and woody fibers. Equally highly interested in this plant are the pharmaceutical and construction sectors, since its metabolites show potent bioactivities on human health and its outer and inner stem tissues can be used to make bioplastics and concrete-like material, respectively. In this review, the rich spectrum of hemp phytochemicals is discussed by putting a special emphasis on molecules of industrial interest, including cannabinoids, terpenes and phenolic compounds, and their biosynthetic routes. Cannabinoids represent the most studied group of compounds, mainly due to their wide range of pharmaceutical effects in humans, including psychotropic activities. The therapeutic and commercial interests of some terpenes and phenolic compounds, and in particular stilbenoids and lignans, are also highlighted in view of the most recent literature data. Biotechnological avenues to enhance the production and bioactivity of hemp secondary metabolites are proposed by discussing the power of plant genetic engineering and tissue culture. In particular two systems are reviewed, i.e., cell suspension and hairy root cultures. Additionally, an entire section is devoted to hemp trichomes, in the light of their importance as phytochemical factories. Ultimately, prospects on the benefits linked to the use of the -omics technologies, such as metabolomics and transcriptomics to speed up the identification and the large-scale production of lead agents from bioengineered Cannabis cell culture, are presented.

Keywords: Cannabis; cannabinoids; cellulose; fibers; hemp; lignans; lignin; terpenes.

Publication types

  • Review