Over 90 percent of the world's opium comes from poppies grown in Afghanistan but that may be about to change as scientists have engineered brewer's yeast to synthesize opioids such as codeine and morphine from a common sugar, it was reported on Monday.
"It is going to be possible to 'home-brew' opiates in the near future," Christopher Voight of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told reporters about the latest discovery.
While process, described in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, is inefficient right now, requiring 300 litres of genetically engineered yeast to produce a single 30 milligram dose of morphine, improvements that are well within reach.
So close, in fact, that a dose could be obtained from "a glass of yeast culture grown with sugar on a windowsill," Voight said.
The trick behind the breakthrough is that yeast cells have been genetically engineered to carry out the second part of the complex 15-step opioid-producing reaction. All that remained was just the hurdle of coaxing yeast to carry out the first part.
That is what scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and Concordia University in Montreal have accomplished.
The team, led by John Dueber at the University of California, Berkeley, isolated a crucial enzyme from sugar beets, mutated its gene to make it more productive, and inserted it into yeast.
They then added more foreign DNA to achieve their goal: the yeast carried out the first half of the reaction that produces opioids.
While the new yeast could synthesize cheaper, less addictive, and more effective pain-killers, the creation of morphine-making yeast will likely increase access to illegal opiates.
The findings could make illegal drugs "easy to grow, conceal and distribute," with little more than a home-brew beer-making kit, policy analysts at MIT warned.
While the analysts called for policies to regulate engineered-yeast strains, the cat may be out of the bag.
The recipe for opiate-producing yeast is now public and "anyone trained in basic molecular biology could theoretically build it" Dueber said.