Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Update: Researchers have taken yet another crucial step towards creating "home-brewed" morphine using engineered yeast, reports The New York Times. This suggests we may see the final product within a year. Continue to our original story below to learn more about this developing area of work.
This post was originally published September 10, 2014.
In this study, recently published in Nature Chemical Biology, the researchers were able to engineer strains of baker's yeast to convert the drug precursor thebaine into recognizable opiates. These included codeine, morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Although producing them required the yeast to express genes from bacteria and the classic poppy plant, the resulting compounds were indistinguishable from the ones you'd find in pill or liquid form at the hospital.
Making the stuff required some creative biochemical engineering. The researchers started with the S. cerevisiae strain of yeast, commonly used in leavening bread and fermenting beer. Then, the team spliced in the opium-synthesizing T6ODM, COR and CODM genes from the poppy plant and the morA and morB genes from the bacteria P. putida, which naturally converts morphine and codeine into other products (e.g. hydromorphone and hydrocodone) when mixed with water. This way, the scientists conquered two steps at once: creating the opium and turning it into something more interesting (and medically valuable). Once production was complete, they compared the opiate compounds to commercially available standards — with favorable results.
All of this suggests that one day, we won't need the poppy or the industry that surrounds it to satisfy our rising need for morphine-like painkillers. But, that also means that we might see the rise of the yeast drug dealer. Or, yeast that produces cannabinoids, says io9. I mean, really, bread is just so basic.