- Scientists are making progress in genetically modifying yeast strains to convert simple sugars into narcotic substances similar to morphine or codeine. This breakthrough could become a reality within the next 2-3 years.
- Such yeast strains could revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry, enabling the production of low-cost, possibly more effective, and less addictive pain medications. They could also produce other therapies derived from poppy molecules, like antibiotics or anti-cancer drugs.
- The misuse of these yeast strains poses a threat as they could become a cheap and easy source for the production of illegal drugs. As a result, scientists are urging policymakers to create preemptive strategies, such as limiting access to the yeast or making it less attractive to drug abusers.
- Genetic alteration of yeast is based on the complex 15-step process that poppies use to naturally produce a group of chemicals known as benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (BIAs), from which pain-relieving medications are derived.
- The research team has proposed various preventive measures to avert misuse, such as engineering yeast strains that produce only low-value narcotics, implementing stringent security measures around these strains, and extending current drug laws to cover them.
Researchers project that in the not-too-distant future, it could be feasible to ‘home-brew’ narcotics using a critiquely altered version of baker’s yeast and some simple sugar.This upcoming scientific milestone, however, may require extensive regulation.
Scientists are swiftly approaching a method to create a novel strain of yeast which could convert corn syrup into an opiate resembling codeine or morphine via fermentation, informs bioengineering assistant Professor John Dueber, stationed at the University of California, Berkeley.
A dedicated push could potentially make yeast-derived narcotics a reality within two to three years, claims Dueber. He further states “We began this work slightly over twelve months ago, we estimated that we were ten years away from a yeast strain that would produce enough morphine to have an active effect in the body. However, progress is faster than what we originally projected.”
Potential Benefits and Misuse
The innovative yeast strain could be of immense advantage to the medical field, making the production of inexpensive, possibly more efficacious and less addictive pain-relief medication possible. This yeast could also be manipulated to create other medicines derived from poppy molecules, such as antibiotics or anti-cancer drugs. However, if it fell into the wrong hands, it could supply an easy and cheap source for illegal narcotics, warns Dueber.
Foreseeing Possible Issues
With the potential for misuse in mind, scientists urge policymakers to develop preemptive strategies that would limit illegal use. Potential strategies could encompass laws and regulations restricting access to the yeast and lab efforts to make it less attractive to drug abusers.
Research teams have been laboriously trying to reproduce the intricate 15-step chemical process by which poppies organically produce a group of organic chemicals termed benzylisoquinoline alkaloids, or BIAs. Various existing and potential medicines can be derived from poppies-produced BIAs such as codeine, morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. However, due to their structural complexity, BIAs cannot be chemically synthesized on a commercial scale and must be extracted from plants like the opium poppy.
New Study Revealations
A recent study in the journal _Nature Chemical Biology_ outlines all but one step of an engineered yeast pathway which could convert a simple sugar known as glucose into the narcotic morphine. The study’s senior author, Dueber, argues that it would not take a lot of effort to decipher the last remaining step, but more effort to “integrate all those pathways into one yeast cell and have them working efficiently enough together to yield a significant amount of the final product.”
The aim of their research was not centered on making inexpensive narcotics. Poppies produce thousands of potentially beneficial biochemicals, however, as they are present in such small quantities; it currently is impossible to produce enough to explore their medicinal properties.
Due to the association between poppies and BIAs with narcotics, the researchers recognized that their findings could potentially be misused. The probability of this strain being leaked, or having all the related information openly available to someone with the technical knowledge, poses a risk.
Given this potential misuse scenario, a set of preventative measures has been suggested. These include engineering yeast strains to make them less appealing to criminals by designing them to produce only opiates with limited street value. Other measures include increasing security around narcotic-producing yeast strains, ensuring that DNA synthesis companies screen all orders for DNA sequences that could be potentially used by criminals to generate opiate-producing yeast, and extending current narcotics laws to cover opiate-producing yeast strains.
Opiate-producing yeast strains could also include a DNA watermark to make them more easily traced by law enforcement.
For more details about narcotic painkillers, visit the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.