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Scientists Have Figured Out How to Make Sugar into Narcotics

There’s a new sort of drug cave in town and it has a hell of a lot more in common with an Au Bon Pain than some back alley in Shanghai.

Yeast: it's a pretty amazing thing. We may not spend much time thinking about it, but the weird living organism—which is the basis of no less than bread, beer, and wine—is truly a wonder.

And now, our friend yeast can do new tricks, thanks to a little genetic modification in a scientist's lab.

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Scientists are reporting that yeast can now be used to turn sugar into drugs! Specifically, painkilling opioid drugs. And that transformation can happen much quicker than it takes opium poppies to grow and be converted into medicines. Take a breather, opium den. There's a new sort of drug cave in town and it has a hell of a lot more in common with an Au Bon Pain than some back alley in Shanghai.


After a decade of research, Christina Smolke, a Stanford University bioengineering professor, succeeded in taking 20 different genes from five different organisms—the California poppy, the opium poppy, a rat, a goldenthread, and a bacterium—and engineering them into the genome of baker's yeast.

The newly engineered yeast created two different "microbial assembly lines," and each took less than five days to convert sugar into medicinal compounds. One of those compounds, thebaine, can be refined into painkillers. The other, hydrocodone, is used as a prescription painkiller.

Until now, it has taken more than a year to produce these medicines from opium poppies. Farms in Australia and Europe are licensed to grow these plants but they must be grown, harvested, and shipped elsewhere for processing into medicine.

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Smolke said, "When we started work a decade ago, many experts thought it would be impossible to engineer yeast to replace the entire farm-to-factory process."

Think genetically engineered stuff is bad for you? Well, the process has now proven to be useful in creating medications quickly and effectively. And who doesn't love a good painkiller?

"This is only the beginning," Smolke said. "The techniques we developed and demonstrate for opioid pain relievers can be adapted to produce many plant-derived compounds to fight cancers, infectious diseases and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and arthritis."


Yeast has previously been genetically engineered to create an anti-malarial drug. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the mother of beer and bread can do so much.

Still, the opiod process was more complicated than the one that made the drug against malaria: "This is the most complicated chemical synthesis ever engineered in yeast," Smolke said.

Hmmm. A little yeast and a little sugar—can we make this at home?

The Stanford scientists say that their discovery could "increase concerns about the potential for opioid abuse." "We want there to be an open deliberative process to bring researchers and policymakers together," Smolke said. "We need options to help ensure that the bio-based production of medicinal compounds is developed in the most responsible way."

It's worth remembering that while in the U.S., the risk for misuse exists, in the rest of the world, 5.5 billion people have little or no access to pain medications, according to World Health Organization estimates. "Biotech production could lower costs and, with proper controls against abuse, allow bioreactors to be located where they are needed," she said.

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So thank you, yeast. You make the beer, you make the bread, you make the wine. And now you quell our pain. What a delightful microorganism you are.