Researchers have discovered that a compound found in certain species of moss-like plants called liverworts has properties similar to THC from cannabis. Jürg Gertsch of the University of Bern in Switzerland and a team of researchers recently published their findings in the journal Scientific Advances.

Some species in the liverwort genus Radula produce a substance known as perrottetinene, or PET, a chemical first discovered in 1994. Gertsch and his team have determined that PET is very similar in both structure and effect to THC.

‘Legal High’ Available Online

In their report on the study, the researchers noted that one species of the plant native to New Zealand and Tasmania, R. marginata, was being collected in the wild and dried for sale on the internet as a legal high. The team was able to obtain samples of the plant for their research from incense sellers, Gertsch reported.

Daniele Piomelli is a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study. He applauded the team’s work in an interview with Scientific American.

“Curiosity-driven research can lead to interesting results,” said Piomelli. “This is solid work, very credible, showing that this type of liverwort contains compounds that are akin both in structure and pharmaceutical activity to psychoactive cannabinoids in the cannabis plant.”

To conduct their study, the scientists synthesized PET based on the samples they had obtained. They then compared the action of PET to THC and found it bound to the same receptor sites in brain cell membranes. It was also found that both THC and PET were inactive at other specific receptor sites.

Lab Mice Stoned on PET

The researchers also discovered that PET and THC had similar effects when administered to lab mice, although PET was less potent. The mice moved more slowly and had a lower body temperature when under the effects of both substances.

But the team of scientists also noted a difference in how the two chemicals affect prostaglandins, molecules associated with inflammation. PET lowered levels of prostaglandins, while THC did not. Michael Schafroth, a postdoctoral researcher at The Scripps Research Institute and one of the study’s co-authors, said that these chemicals are involved in several biological processes.

Potential Medicinal Value

“These prostaglandins are involved in many processes (such as) memory loss, neuroinflammation, hair loss, and vasoconstriction,” Schafroth said. That makes PET “highly interesting for medicinal applications, as we can expect fewer adverse effects while still having pharmacologically important effects.”

Because of its lower potency and the increasing availability of legal cannabis, Radula probably is not a viable product for recreational uses. But mosses and similar plants, collectively known as bryophytes, might offer undiscovered pharmacological opportunities. Further research into the properties of PET could lead to treatments for inflammatory diseases such as multiple sclerosis, according to Gertsch.

“To date, bryophytes are a bit neglected in terms of bio-prospecting,” said Gertsch. “I think this is a great example that liverworts can generate natural products of relevance to humans.”

However, because bryophytes do not reproduce from seeds, “the cultivation and reproduction of Radula species containing the cannabinoid might be challenging,” Gertsch said.