Scientists have successfully created the properties of cannabis without growing the plant. Medical use of marijuana is becoming widely accepted as an effective treatment tool for a range of conditions from anxiety to epilepsy.
However, the extraction of the cannabinoids is an expensive process and growing the marijuana plants can be environmentally problematic.
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Scientists from the University of Berkeley have now used simple brewer's yeast to produce marijuana’s main ingredients, the powerful THC and non-psychoactive CBD. They also created novel cannabinoids not found in the plant itself.
Cheap abundant supply
The yeast is a cheap and simple way to produce pure cannabinoids. “For the consumer, the benefits are high-quality, low-cost CBD and THC: you get exactly what you want from yeast,” said Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of bioengineering and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“It is a safer, more environmentally friendly way to produce cannabinoids.” The U.S. has legalized cannabis and its extracts in ten states. The production and sale of recreational marijuana in its many forms is a multibillion-dollar industry.
Synthetic cannabinoids will improve medical research
Users may choose to smoke, vape or eat edibles containing the high-inducing THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. There is a variety of medications containing THC that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat a range of illnesses including to reduce nausea after chemotherapy and to improve appetite in AIDS patients.
CBD, or cannabidiol, doesn’t produce a high but has particular calming properties that are being leveraged to treat childhood epileptic seizures as well as anxiety, and chronic pain. In the past exploring the medical use of marijuana has been challenging due the high expense of extracting the cannabinoids from the plants.
Inexpensive and abundant sources like those derived from yeast could rapidly accelerate research. Keasling suggests there is “the possibility of new therapies based on novel cannabinoids: the rare ones that are nearly impossible to get from the plant, or the unnatural ones, which are impossible to get from the plant.”
Good news for the environment
Cannabis joins a long list of other chemicals now being produced in yeast. Scientists are taking advantage of the low cost of the process to grow drugs including human growth hormone, insulin, blood clotting factors, opiates are also being experimentally grown in the common ingredient. In addition to creating an abundant and low-cost supply, exploiting yeast to produce cannabis is a big win for the environment.
Cannabis cultivation can be a highly energy-intensive and water costly process. Farms in California have disturbed streams and small water bodies through damming, pesticide runoff and overuse. In other parts of the world, the rise of the industry has caused an increase in illegal clear-cutting causing erosion and contributing to unregulated drug markets. Kealing is a leading advocate for synthetic biology and says the research proved to be a tough scientific challenge.
“But when you read about cases of patients who have seizures and are helped by CBD, especially children, you realize there is some value in these molecules, and that producing cannabinoids in yeast could really be great,” he said. Keasling has licensed the science behind turning yeast into cannabis and says the finance side looks good
“The economics look really good,” Keasling said. “The cost is competitive or better than that for the plant-derived cannabinoids. And manufacturers don’t have to worry about contamination—for example, THC in CBD—that would make you high.”
The researchers will publish their results in the February 27 edition of the journal Nature.