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Homebrewed morphine? It's now possible, say researchers

If you have the right strain of yeast and some sugar, whipping up drugs in your kitchen would be almost as easy as brewing a batch of beer.

A research team led by UC Berkeley bioengineers has just released the news that they've figured out how to turn yeast and sugar into a "microbial factory" that could be used to produce morphine and other drugs. They've also warned authorities that in the wrong hands, their discovery could lead to home drug breweries, and they're calling for regulatory oversight of this new method of producing opiates.

poppy.jpg
New research shows that yeast can stand in for the poppy in leading to drug production. Gary Houston/Creative Commons

UC Berkeley bioengineer John Dueber worked with microbiologist Vincent Martin at Concordia University in Montreal to pick up on previous work involved in decoding a 15-step chemical pathway in the poppy plant. The goal of such work has been to figure out a way to feed sugar to microbes -- like yeast and E. coli -- to have them mimic the poppy and produce useful drugs. Getting yeast to do the job would significantly speed up the process that naturally occurs in the plant and make experimentation and drug production much faster.

"We can easily manipulate and tune the DNA of the yeast and quickly test the results," said UC Berkeley's William DeLoache in a statement about the yeast-based method. DeLoache is lead author of a paper published this week in the journal Nature Chemical Biology. He's also a Ph.D. student in bioengineering who worked with Dueber and Martin.

Previous research was only able to convert a chemical compound called reticuline to morphine using yeast. Getting to reticuline was the hurdle.

By employing an enzyme found in beets, the team was able to produce a strain of yeast that can turn an amino acid derived from glucose (sugar) into reticuline, effectively completing the entire chain from sugar to morphine.

"Getting to reticuline is critical because from there, the molecular steps that produce codeine and morphine from reticuline have already been described in yeast," said Martin. "Also, reticuline is a molecular hub in the BIA pathway. From there, we can explore many different paths to other potential drugs, not just opiates."

The BIA pathway Martin mentions is the chemical trail in the poppy plant that leads to opiates like codeine and a chemical that's the precursor to oxycodone and hydrocodone. In addition to a quicker way to produce these drugs, the researchers say their discovery might also lead to ways to produce antibiotics and anti-cancer therapies.

The flip side of the research is that it also makes it easy for anyone with the right strain of yeast to brew up batches of opiates in their basements.

"We're likely looking at a timeline of a couple of years, not a decade or more, when sugar-fed yeast could reliably produce a controlled substance," said Dueber, whose team has yet to combine the two phases of research to produce the strain of yeast that can actually convert sugar to morphine. "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."

One possibility would be to keep the drug-producing strains of yeast under lock and key, much like how the DNA sequences of smallpox are kept safe from the public. Still, Dueber said, "An additional concern 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."

Martin told The Guardian that his team has no plans to link up the two phases of yeast manipulation described in the research and actually make the strain that can convert sugar to morphine until regulations are in place. "If this is something that we shouldn't do, let's talk about it now," he said.

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