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Genetically Modified Yeast Can 'Home-Brew' Morphine

By Carl Engelking
May 20, 2015 12:11 AMNov 20, 2019 12:58 AM


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In the near future, amateur basement brewers mulling over their next batch may struggle to choose between concocting an IPA or an opioid. Scientists have recently announced that they've genetically engineered brewer’s yeast to convert common sugars into pain-killing opioids like codeine and morphine.The process is simple enough that hobbyists could easily brew morphine with a run-of-the-mill brewing kit — if they get their hands on yeast with the right genetic tweaks.

Easing the Pain

Opioids are today's go-to drugs for serious pain relief, but their molecular structure is so complex that scientists, to this point, haven’t been able to manufacture them from scratch. Instead, the drugs are still refined from compounds isolated from plants, such as the poppy. But scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, have figured out a way to use yeast to complete the entire 15-step opioid-producing reaction. Previous research had already cracked the second half of the reaction recipe, but coaxing one strain of yeast to complete the entire process still posed a challenge.

Yeast Machines

To create tiny morphine factories, scientists added to yeast genetic components from poppy, sugar beets, and a soil bacterium. The result was three strains of yeast that, when used in sequence, could convert glucose to morphine. Theoretically these three could easily be combined into one single strain to complete the whole process, the team reported in the journal Nature Chemical Biology. The technique isn’t very efficient: A single 30-milligram dose of morphine requires 300 liters of genetically modified yeast. However, scientists believe that efficiency will improve with time. "It is going to be possible to 'home-brew' opiates in the near future," Christopher Voight of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the research, told Reuters Monday.

Clear Concerns

For drug companies, the breakthrough represents a cheap way to synthesize pain-killing drugs. Additional DNA tweaks to the yeast could also yield less addictive and more effective drugs. On the other hand, the breakthrough also represents an incredibly simple way for drug distributors to manufacture the opiates used in heroin with little more than a home-brewing kit. These fears, however, may be a bit amplified, as the New York Times reports:

Although making small amounts of morphine will soon be feasible, [biotech experts] say, the yeasts are so fragile and the fermentation process so delicate that it is not close to producing salable quantities of heroin.

Still, other experts are calling for immediate regulatory attention to the prospect of manufacturing illegal drugs via yeast, writing:

In generating a drug source that is self-replicating and easy to grow, conceal and distribute, the work could also transform the illicit opiate marketplace to decentralized, localized production. In so doing, it could dramatically increase people's access to opiates.

Photo credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

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