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Understanding Cannabis at a Cellular Level

Growing Marijuana: Understanding the Process at the Cellular Level

As marijuana use becomes more widely accepted across the United States, an ever-growing number of people are considering the prospect of cultivating this age-old herb. Growing healthy plants and producing potent, high-quality yields requires a certain amount of time and care, as well as specific elements, like heat, light, air, water, and nutrients.

Each of those specific elements serves a purpose in fostering cannabis growth and determining the quality and potency of buds as well as the size of the yield from each harvest. In order to truly understand how the basic essentials affect those factors we need to observe marijuana plants at the cellular level.

A Brief Explanation of Plant Cells

All living things are made up of cells. At the same time, several types of cells exist. Each one plays a specific role in the life of the organism it constitutes. In the case of marijuana plants, you’ll find different cells comprise the flowers, leaves, stems, vascular systems, digestive systems and more. Some cannabis’ plant cells are designed to draw in light and air whereas others process nutrients and eliminate waste.

Each plant cell consists of numerous components. Again, every piece has its own function. All those parts work in tandem to keep plants healthy and allow them to grow as long as the right conditions and elements are in place. Let’s explore the basics of cellular anatomy…

On the Outside of a Cannabis Cell

First off, we have the cell wall. This is the tough outer layer covering each cell to give it shape and strength. Though most animal cells are round, plant cells are square or rectangular. Plant cell walls are composed of pectin, cellulose, and hemicellulose. Certain proteins and other compounds are present as well.

Aside from providing shape and structural integrity, cell walls act as fortresses. They control what goes into and out of the cell. Lack of water can cause cell walls to weaken. When this happens, they can’t keep out pathogens as well as they should, so plants become more vulnerable to fungal infections, bacteria and other problems. Light and heat deficits may cause cell walls to become elongated, leading to sparse leaf growth and low yields.

Just inside the cell wall, we find a cell membrane comprised of proteins and fats. It’s less rigid than the wall but still strong enough to help support and reinforce the cell. Membranes also determine which components are allowed to enter and exit cells. In some cases, particles force past the cell wall only to be rejected by the membrane. Other times, essential elements might slip past the membrane, bounce off the cell wall and return to the cell’s interior.

Digging Deeper

Cell walls and membranes make up the outer layers of cells. They house a number of smaller components known as organelles:


Chloroplasts are disc-shaped organelles filled with dozens of tiny folds. They contain chlorophyll, the substance that gives plants their green color. Chlorophyll is also responsible for photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light, CO2, and H2O into glucose.

When light passes through cell walls and membranes, it reaches the chloroplasts where it’s absorbed by the chlorophyll. Chloroplasts and the chlorophyll within seek out specific types of light depending on the time of year and growth phase of the plant among other factors.

Inside chloroplasts, absorbed light and carbon dioxide are converted to sugars for plants to use as needed. If there’s not enough light and heat available to be absorbed, chloroplasts shut down, and photosynthesis can’t take place.


Science textbooks generally call mitochondria the powerhouses of cells. Once chloroplasts draw in light, mitochondria convert it to energy to keep the cells alive and functioning and ensure they’re able to multiply.

Mitochondria give marijuana plants the power to grow and produce buds. They’re also partially responsible for determining the potency of the buds. Without the right amounts of light and heat, mitochondria have nothing to transform into energy, so plants wither and die. When plants receive too much light and heat, the conversion process may go into overdrive, and that would be equally detrimental.

Ribosomes and Golgi Apparatus

Ribosomes lie in various parts of plant cells. Cannabis plants draw in nutrients from the air and soil and send it to the ribosomes. From there, the ribosomes use those nutrients to create proteins and send them further along the plants’ assembly lines to the Golgi apparatus. In turn, the Golgi apparatus either stores the proteins or modifies them depending on the plant’s needs.

Endoplasmic Reticulum

In plant cells, the endoplasmic reticulum works closely with the ribosomes and Golgi apparatus to process, store or transfer proteins. This component also creates lipids, or fats. It’s basically a system of tunnels leading throughout the cell. When certain parts of the cell need proteins or lipids, the endoplasmic reticulum sends them to the appropriate destinations.

If a plant is exposed to unnecessary stress due to adverse growing conditions, the endoplasmic reticulum can break down. As a result, proteins and lipids may not be stored or distributed properly. This could lead to weakening of the cell wall and render the mitochondria unable to convert light to energy as well as a range of other issues.


Vacuoles are storage compartments in cannabis plant cells. They serve as warehouses for unused nutrients, food and waste among other elements. When the plant is ready to convert vitamins or minerals to energy or use food for growth and bud production, it draws those compounds from vacuoles.

At the same time, vacuoles hold onto waste until it’s evacuated from the plant. This function helps protect the plant from contamination and ensures its energy stockpiles remain free of toxins. Vacuoles also aid in giving cells their strength and structure. In turn, they help keep the plant strong and firm.


Nuclei are the nerve centers of marijuana plant cells. They’re where most of the action takes place. The nucleus gives organelles and other components of the cell guidance and direction. It also holds the DNA of the cell. DNA determines virtually every trait imaginable from the specific strain of cannabis to the functioning of the cell. It even decides whether the cell will be part of the root system, stems, leaves, buds or otherwise.

From the beginning, the nucleus holds the DNA of all types of cells. This means each cell has the potential to develop into any type. During development, though, the nutrients the cell receives, hormones contained in the nucleus and other factors influence the ultimate purpose of the cell in question. Once they mature, cannabis cells are classified into five distinct categories:

  • Sclerenchyma Cells: found in cannabis’ roots. Sclerenchyma cells are tough but flexible, giving them the ability to support plants while growing and branching out to find water and nutrients in soil or other growth media.
  • Collenchyma Cells: located in stems and leaf veins— these cells offer plants added support. They also make way for other cells that will develop as the plants grow.
  • Parenchyma Cells: less rigid than sclerenchyma and collenchyma cells, these cells have a variety of roles in plant health and growth. They may store food, convert nutrients to energy, remove waste or help produce leaves and buds.
  • Xylem Cells: take in water and nutrients, carry vitamins, minerals and moisture to various parts of the plant.
  • Phloem Cells: phloem cells transport soluble organic compounds (translocation) to areas where it’s needed.

When they first begin to take shape, new cells can become any of these specialized cells. DNA in the nucleus aids in deciding each cell’s ultimate destiny. Once a cell matures, the nucleus ensures it fulfills its role and executes all the necessary functions to do so.

Nuclei and all the organelles making up a marijuana plant cell float around carrying out their duties in a sea of fluid. Known as cytoplasm, this fluid and its contents are held in place by the cell wall and membrane. It also serves as a catalyst for various cell functions and helps cells maintain their shape and volume.

All Things Considered

Marijuana seeds look a bit uninteresting at first glance. Beneath those lackluster shells, though, a tiny network of cells lies in wait. Once exposed to the essential elements, the DNA in the nuclei of those cells bursts into action. From there, cannabis cells begin to grow, divide, multiply and take on increasingly diverse roles. Ultimately, millions of specialized cannabis cells form and work together to generate a bounty of buds rich in THC, CBD or both.

Plant cells are primarily composed of water, as moisture is vital to all the process carried out within them. Cell walls, membranes and organelles depend on the right balance of light, air, warmth and nutrients to develop a seed into a healthy, robust marijuana plant laden with potent buds. Understanding cannabis at the cellular level can certainly contribute to an informed and successful growing experience. Start with seeds from!