No need for poppies: Modified sugar yeast can brew morphine, scientists say

Reuters / Shamil Zhumatov
Scientists have developed a technique to make morphine and potentially other drugs, including antibiotics and anti-cancer meds, without using opium from poppies. But they warn the discovery may pave the way for homemade medication and wider drug abuse.

The scientists said they were able to synthesize reticuline, a chemical compound found in a variety of plants, including poppies, from tyrosine, a derivative of glucose.

The research led by the teams of UC Berkeley bioengineers and specialists from Concordia University in Montreal was published in Nature Chemical Biology scientific journal.

“What you really want to do from a fermentation perspective is to be able to feed the yeast glucose, which is a cheap sugar source, and have the yeast do all the chemical steps required downstream to make your target therapeutic drug,” UC Berkeley bioengineer John Dueber, a member of the research team, said.

On the right are yeast cells producing the yellow beet pigment (image by UC Berkeley)

The scientists, however, warn that this discovery may have ‘a dark side’ as it could facilitate production of homemade drugs. Thus, they are trying to draw the attention of regulators and law enforcers to this issue.

Dueber said that the team is looking “at a timeline of a couple of years, not a decade or more,” when homemade brewing of sugar into morphine without opium poppies becomes a reality.

“The time is now to think about policies to address this area of research. The field is moving surprisingly fast, and we need to be out in front so that we can mitigate the potential for abuse.”

The scientist say an additional concern for the technology “is that once the knowledge of how to create an opiate-producing strain is out there, anyone trained in basic molecular biology could theoretically build it.”

Policy analysts Kenneth A. Oye and J. Chappell H. Lawson from US and Tania Bubela from Canada have released their commentary in Nature Chemical Biology journal, calling for urgent regulations of the technology.

“Anyone with access to the yeast strain and basic skills in fermentation would be able to grow morphine-producing yeast using a home-brew kit for beer-making,” they wrote.

They say that if the modified yeast strain produced 10 grams of morphine substance, “users would need to drink only 1–2 milliliters of the liquid to obtain a standard prescribed dose.”