We use yeast to make the staples of life: bread, beer, and wine.
Now, researchers from the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany have engineered yeast to generate some notable chemicals in marijuana, including THC, which is mostly responsible for the marijuana’s high, and cannabidiol.
And that’s just the start. The work could unlock the true potential for medical marijuana — or for actually deriving medicine from the more than 80 cannabinoids (and more than 500 other chemical compounds!) found in the plant.
How this works
Yeast — a tiny microorganism that’s classified as a fungus — wields a transformative and seemingly magical power to consume one substance and turn it into another.
Recently, scientists realised that genetically modified strains of yeast could turn sugar into opiates, essentially making “home-brewed heroin,” to the consternation of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (and parents who worry that their child could become the Walter White of biology).
But yeast capable of making marijuana chemicals isn’t like the heroin scenario.
For one, the researchers behind the new discovery aren’t worried that their work could lead to batches of secret, yeast-produced THC for mind-altering fun. “Cannabis is hard to beat” for that, Jonathan Page, a botanist at the University of British Columbia, told The New York Times.
Instead, the scientists who’ve engineered this yeast think they could use this approach to produce any particular marijuana chemical and investigate its medical potential.
There’s plenty of evidence for the idea that certain compounds in marijuana might be helpful for certain medical conditions, Yasmin Hurd, a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, recently told Tech Insider. For example, cannabidivarin (one of those many compounds) has been shown to help control seizures when tested in animals.
But if we don’t know what specific chemical of hundreds or more in the plant is carrying out the helpful effects, we don’t know what to choose to help people most.
Using all the compounds in marijuana simultaneously is like “throwing 400 tablets in a cocktail and saying ‘take this,'” Hurd says. Instead, we need to figure out “which component of that cocktail is really beneficial for this disease.”
Figuring out exactly which component of marijuana makes a difference is exactly what this new yeast system could do.
Oliver Kayser, a biochemist at the university behind the work, explains to The New York Times that coming up with a way to make marijuana’s specific effective compounds — THC included — without growing the actual plants was the point, since European regulators would like a way to make those chemicals without using the cannabis plant itself.
“They are in fear that these plants will be grown and will support some illegal farming,” Kayser tells the Times.
While scientists have been working on this process for a while, Kayser and the rest of his team took advantage of a recent decoding of which genes marijuana uses to make THC and other compounds, and then engineered those genes into yeast.
Quite a few hurdles remain before full production of interesting marijuana compounds could start up in earnest. The current yeast strain can’t make them with only sugar, for example, which would make the process easier and more efficient. So for now, the yeast is fed specific molecules to produce the cannabinoids.
And in the research they have published so far, they have only demonstrated that they can produce THC. (However, the Times reports the researchers have unpublished data suggesting they can make cannabidiol as well.)
While cannabidiol is definitely of medical interest, potentially having uses for treating epilepsy, Kayser and others may have a long road ahead in showing their yeast can easily produce many other cannabinoids of interest.
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