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paves the way
future of cannabis may feature
production facilities that have more in common with a craft beer
brewery than a grow house - and leave out the plant altogether.
By using genetically modified yeast, the Berkeley scientists were able to convert simple sugars into the active chemical compounds in marijuana:
The scientists made THC
and CBD - the chemicals that get users high and which have
supposed medical benefits - without the marijuana plant.
Over the last few years, biosynthesis - the process of producing complex molecules within living cells - has quietly gained ground as a way to satisfy the booming demand for non-smokable cannabinoid products, like THC-laced snacks and CBD-infused oils.
A handful of
American and Canadian companies
have begun to file patent applications for cannabinoid-producing
yeast, E. coli, and other easily-manipulated microorganisms, usually
keeping their research a secret to maintain their business
He believes the work
could also pave the way for yeast to synthesize some of the other
cannabinoids besides THC and CBD, of which there are over a hundred,
that could be promising for medical applications but are only found
in cannabis plants at low levels.
Thanks to a large public database of cannabis DNA, scientists had identified dozens of potential candidates for this enzyme.
But few are compatible enough with yeast DNA that they can produce large volumes of cannabinoids without side effects that damage the final product.
Jay Keasling, the biochemist at Berkeley who led the research, says his team tested dozens of options before finding the right combination of enzyme genes.
Yeast is a good host organism, Keasling says, because its DNA is thoroughly documented and because it's already in wide use for other commercial applications like beer-making and wine-making.
Keasling filed a patent for this method back in 2017, and has since been hammering down the science and working with a Bay Area biotech startup, Demetrix, to bring the process from the lab into commercial production.
Over the next few years,
the company hopes to bring the cost of production below $1,000 per
kilogram, far below the cost of chemically-synthesized
cannabinoids (tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram) or
cannabinoids extracted from a plant (more than $5,000 per kilogram),
according to Jeff Ubersax, the company's CEO.
And some of Demetrix's competitors remain skeptical that Keasling's approach is much different from what others are cooking up behind the scenes.
Ronan Levy, chief strategic officer of another Demetrix competitor, New Mexico-based Trait Biosciences, says his company's preferred approach is to find ways to induce a cannabis plant to produce cannabinoids in every one of its cells, rather than only those in the "tricone" (better known as the "bud"), where it grows naturally.
It's unclear whether biosynthesized cannabinoids would be subject to the same legal restrictions as plant-derived compounds, since federal law applies to the plant and not necessarily to the cannabinoids in it.
Cannabis researchers are subject to tight restrictions on where they can procure samples, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved only one CBD-based drug, Epidiolex, for childhood epilepsy.
Either way, biosynthesis is poised to change the way we think about getting high.