Nature opens the door to home-brewed heroin – just add water and sugar:
A paper published on 18 May in Nature Chemical Biology reports the creation of a yeast strain containing the first half of a biochemical pathway that turns simple sugars into morphine — mimicking the process by which poppies make opiates. Combined with other advances, researchers predict that it will be only a few years — or even months — before a single engineered yeast strain can complete the entire process.
Besides giving biologists the power to tinker with the morphine-production process, the advance could lead to more-effective, less addictive and cheaper painkillers that could be brewed under tight controls in fermentation vats. At the same time, it could enable widespread, localized production of illegal opiates such as heroin, increasing people’s access to such drugs.
“It’s easy to point to heroin; that’s a concrete problem,” says bioengineer John Dueber of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the latest research. “The benefits are less visible. They are going to greatly outweigh the negative, but it’s hard to describe them.”
Over the past decade, several research teams have tried to coax microbes, including the baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the lab-workhorse bacterium Escherichia coli, into making plant-derived drugs. The antimalarial drug artemisinin, originally derived from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), is now produced commercially in yeast.
The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), as the only commercial source of morphine and opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, is an obvious target for bioengineering.
The implications for opiate production are one thing, but researchers say that they are most excited by the prospect of taking bits and pieces of plant pathways to create entirely new molecules.