In August, researchers announced they had genetically engineered yeast to produce the powerful painkiller hydrocodone. Now comes the perhaps inevitable sequel: Scientists have created yeasts that can make important constituents of marijuana, including the main psychoactive compound, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
Synthetic versions of THC are available in pill form under brand names like Marinol and Cesamet; they are generally used to treat nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite caused by H.I.V. infection or cancer chemotherapy. Genetically modified yeast could make THC in a cheaper and more streamlined way than traditional chemical synthesis.
Using yeast could also shed light on the clinical usefulness of cannabis-derived compounds. Marijuana is increasingly embraced as medicine, yet there islimited evidence that it is effective against many of the conditions for which it is prescribed. Researchers hoping to separate fact from wishful thinking will need much better access to marijuana’s unique constituents. Modified yeast may provide them.
“This is something that could literally change the lives of millions of people,” said Kevin Chen, the chief executive of Hyasynth Bio, a company working to create yeasts that produce THC and cannabidiol, another marijuana compound of medicinal interest.
In a paper published this month in the journal Biotechnology Letters,biochemists at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany reported that they had engineered a strain of yeast that produces THC. They also have unpublished data to show they succeeded in creating a yeast strain that can make cannabidiol.
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