Science

Yeast engineered to cheaply produce marijuana cannabinoids

Yeast engineered to cheaply pr...
The new method allows for cheaper and faster production of medical-grade cannabinoids in large quantities
The new method allows for cheaper and faster production of medical-grade cannabinoids in large quantities
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The new method allows for cheaper and faster production of medical-grade cannabinoids in large quantities
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The new method allows for cheaper and faster production of medical-grade cannabinoids in large quantities

In an exciting new breakthrough from scientists at UC Berkeley, common brewer's yeast has been engineered to produce several major cannabinoids found in marijuana. This innovation promises faster, cheaper and easier production of these compounds for use in research and medical treatments.

Yeast is a pretty amazing microorganism. One species in particular, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has played a fundamental role in human life for thousands of years. From leavening bread to producing our alcohol, S. cerevisiae is a pretty helpful little microbe. Over the last few decades, the advent of genetic engineering has allowed scientists to turn yeast into tiny chemical biofactories to help mass produce a variety of compounds humans need, from insulin to growth hormones.

As scientists learn more and more about the medical properties of certain cannabinoid compounds found in marijuana, there is a growing need to find ways to better manufacture those compounds. Marijuana is not necessarily a difficult plant to grow, however it is energy intensive and its valuable cannabinoids naturally occur in such tiny quantities that mass production is a challenge. Purity of extraction is another issue for scientists, especially when trying to develop medical treatments such as CBD for epilepsy.

Yeast traditionally turns sugar into ethanol but the microorganism can be genetically altered to produce different enzymes that result in different chemical byproducts. The new research demonstrated how, through the addition of over a dozen different genes, the yeast could be engineered to a produce variety of cannabinoids including cannabigerolic acid, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, and cannabidiolic acid. These compounds, with the addition of heat, easily become the more commonly known cannabinoids CBG, THC, and CBD.

"For the consumer, the benefits are high-quality, low-cost CBD and THC: you get exactly what you want from yeast," explains Jay Keasling, one of the scientists working on the project. "It is a safer, more environmentally friendly way to produce cannabinoids."

Alongside the manufacturing benefits, the new method may allow scientists better opportunities to research some of the rarer and more novel cannabinoids that are nearly impossible to extract from the plant. There are over 100 different, novel chemicals in marijuana plants so this new method paves the way for production in large quantities of pure cannabinoids with an ease and volume that scientists have never experienced.

"The economics look really good," says Keasling. "The cost is competitive or better than that for the plant-derived cannabinoids. And manufacturers don't have to worry about contamination – for example, THC in CBD – that would make you high."

The new research was published in the journal Nature.

Source: UC Berkeley

7 comments
aksdad
Now if they can engineer cannabis into brewer's yeast for beer and wine, they'll really have something.
minivini
Want “cheaply produced cannabinoids”? Don’t make it legally ridiculously difficult to to grow to stuff!
jerryd
Terrible idea. Pot works because it is a blend of many compounds that as a blend work great selectively bred for 10k yrs, one if not the earliest crops. Now used separately you end up with problems like spice. So we need to be careful doing this. There are likely already many types of pot around the world for different qualities like some are great for sleeping while others for muscle relief, etc. Further breeding of them will likely yield far faster, better, cheaper results everyone can afford. Also by smoking or vaping one controls the dose far better than in eatable form. Pot has been extremely safe, one of the safest drugs ever with no poisoning deaths, because of this. But eating it takes a long while, 2 hours or so to feel the effects so they take more and end up feeling badly, scared though it'll pass, especially if they eat something sweet. But far more likely to have a bad outcome. So by smoking or vaping you'll hit your limit fast, limiting dose.
EZ
Looks like Big Pharma finally found a way to out class the natural method. They talk about how wonderful it will be to have a menu of choices for MD's to choose from for various ailments that pot can cure. Now they'll have a way sell it by way of the current medical/insurance business model. It will be dirt cheap to make and have various prices, depending on a patient's insurance situation. I think I'll still with the all natural system. At least until they make it illegal again.
Neil Farbstein
Those rare nonCBD and nonTHC chemicals are interesting.
ljaques
The non-stony CBD (cannabidiol) is making history curing disease, easing epileptic seizures, and taking pain away, so this is a great step forward. Maybe UC Berzerkeley is good for something after all. Without the THC and the hemp connection, it should be 50-state legal, too. Go for it, folks!
Jean Lamb
In the SF novel RULE 34 by Charles Stross, a drug smuggler gets in trouble for trading the wrong kind of bread starter...it was written several years ago, but it's a thought.