How do you get weed without the weed? By genetically engineering yeast to produce THC, of course.
Once theorized in a stoner magazine column more than a decade ago, a biotechstartup working in Ireland is actively trying to transplant the genetic information that codes for both THC and another cannabinoid called CBD into yeast so that new medicinal (and, perhaps recreational) "marijuana" can be grown in a lab—no plants necessary.
"Right now, growing medical marijuana is expensive and it's heavily regulated as well. It's slow to grow, you've got to go through several different strains before you get a stable blend," Sarah Choukah, CEO of Hyasynth Bio, told me. "We're thinking to bypass all this, to make it quick to grow, we can develop pot from technology that could give us customizable blends of yeast."
That's right—you can have different strains of THC-producing yeast, just like you do with marijuana. On its website, the team says that "rather than relying on plant strains generated from selective breeding, specifically crafted microbes can be designed within a matter of days."
Choukah and her cofounder, Kevin Chen, say they aren't exactly sure what the final form of their product will be, but you won't smoke it. Most likely, the THC will be delivered via a patch, a topical cream, or in vaporizer or e-cigarette form.
The goal here, at first, isn't to create another way for people to get high. Instead, it'll be using the ability to quickly and precisely modify THC content to create more specialized treatments for specific diseases, such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. It'll also be creating reliable THC for researchers to work on. But the recreational market is certainly on the team's radar.
"Further down the line, depending on how the regulatory environment is, we might get into recreational," Choukah said.
The plan here is much like other schemes to make bacteria, or algae, or yeast create something that it doesn't do in nature, like we see with lab-grown meat and certain types of biofuels. The team hopes to insert cannabis DNA into yeast and then use the fungus' natural biological properties to turn it into a THC factory. Besides THC and CBD, the team hopes to eventually synthesize other cannabinoids.
Scientists originally discovered the gene that codes for THC back in 2009, and early reports suggested that the find would lead to researchers who tried to take THC out of cannabis to create new strains of hemp. Turns out, they're doing the opposite.
"People have thought about doing this before, but never really went after it," Chen said. "People don't like to work on cannabis research because there are regulatory hurdles to get into it. And then, I guess, there are some people who think there's an ethical issue with working on an illegal drug."
The team says it's completely legal to modify yeast to create CBD, while THC is a little trickier. That's one of the reasons why the company is going to initially focus on the medicinal side of things, but Choukah admitted the company has been keeping a close eye on legalization efforts in Washington, Colorado, and other states.
Choukah and Chen already have some seed funding (get it?) and say they're going to work in the lab within the next week or so, and will be working on an accelerated timeline—they hope to know whether this will work or not by next month. If yeast proves tough to work with, the team will try to reengineer E. Coli or algae, instead. The company is set to present its work at a synthetic biology demonstration day in Ireland on August 19.
"If we hit the jackpot," Chen said. "We'll have it by then."