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“VSC3 is by far the most important and correlated the most with the cultivars,” Oswald said. “But if we were to ever discover a cannabis cultivator that didn’t have VSC3 at all but had VSC4 and VSC5, I promise you, everybody would say that that smells like cannabis.”
This was corroborated when the researchers mixed together the top 10 aromatic components of the Bacio Gelato cannabis cultivar but excluded VSC3 — creating a smell that the panel noted was evocative of the strain’s floral scent but not its skunky pungency. However, VSC3 doesn’t do all of the aromatic heavy lifting on its own.
Cannabis has a complicated scent profile, with more than 200 secondary metabolites — small molecules plants produce to defend themselves against predators, such as insects, or to attract pollinators — contributing to its distinctive aroma. Terpenes are chief among those in terms of concentration; about six of the aromatic compounds can each be individually responsible for up to 50% of the variation in odor between different cannabis strains, or cultivars, the authors wrote in the study. For example, the cannabis strain called OG Kush gets its signature gasoline-like smell from the terpenes β-myrcene and β-caryophyllene, while higher concentrations of terpinolene and D-limonene make the cultivar Jack Herer smell like citrus and wood.
The sulfurous origins of the plant’s pungency reported in the study were perhaps expected, but the novelty of some of the compounds that the team discovered were not, said Amber Wise. Wise is the scientific director and an analytical chemist at Medicine Creek Analytics, a cannabis-testing lab in Fife, Washington, and was not involved with the study.
The scientists then had a trained panel of four members rank the pungency of the diluted VSCs, along with a collection of terpenes and Cannabis flowers, on a scale of zero to 10. The panel noted that VSC3 — which was identified in a 2001 study published in Chemistry — A European Journal as the primary compound in “skunked” beer that has been ruined by exposure to ultraviolet light — most strongly evoked the skunky aroma of cannabis.
To understand the structures of the sulfurous compounds, Oswald and his colleagues employed a custom-built two-dimensional gas spectrometry system, combined with mass spectrometry and sulfur chemiluminescence. These techniques allowed them to identify the structures of each VSC, which numbered seven in total. Of those seven, the scientists noted that five contained a functional prenyl group — a feature of VSCs that are found in garlic.
Oswald also noted that while the 2021 paper mostly highlighted the significant contribution of VSC3 to the cannabis cultivars’ funky odor, the compounds VSC4 and VSC5 can also play an important aromatic role.
“The amount actually in the plant is very low, even though it has a very strong effect on the odor itself,” Oswald said. “And that’s just because the human nose is very sensitive to these types of compounds, so it doesn’t take a lot to go a long way.”
“There’s this synergistic effect,” Oswald said. “When we mixed them together, that flavor panel said, ‘This is cannabis this; this is definitely it.'”