Sitting down with… cannabis genetics expert Keith Allen, Director of Bioinformatics at Front Range Biosciences
What were you doing before entering the cannabis industry?
I originally trained as a biologist – my undergraduate degree was in biology and for my PhD I studied photosynthesis in plants. During my postdoc in plant developmental genetics, I discovered the then-brand-new field of bioinformatics and was hooked! I moved from academia into biotech, where I worked on gene discovery, first in mice and later in plants. In 2005, I was hired by Syngenta and tasked with building a bioinformatics function for this huge agricultural company – with around 25,000 employees in 70 countries it was a big change from working in startups!
My goal at Syngenta was to find the genes underlying the traits that are most important to modern agriculture, including drought tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, and overall yield. Eventually, I was promoted to a research fellow, which was a very cool gig. My job was to advise the company on what was coming down the pipe in my area of expertise – to prepare for a coming challenge or capitalize on an emerging niche. The skills I developed during my time in “big ag” have proved invaluable in my work in cannabis.
How did your move into cannabis come about?
Around five years ago there was a drop in commodity prices and the agriculture sector was hit hard. I was made redundant and there weren’t a lot of roles available in traditional agriculture.
I’d been keeping an eye on the emerging cannabis and hemp markets for years, intrigued by the rapidly shifting legal and scientific landscape. I took on some consulting work in the industry and started analyzing published data sets to find interesting new patterns. Often, scientists will generate huge data sets in order to answer a particular question – I looked at the same data but asked different questions. I built a name for myself in the industry and was hired, first by Steep Hill and now Front Range Biosciences.
How does cannabis compare to traditional crops?
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