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By Michael Le. It could be a lot more potent than the usual sort of yeast extract. Genetically engineered yeasts could make it easy to produce opiates such as morphine anywhere, cutting out the Heroin is made drug smugglers and making such drugs cheap and more readily available. If home-brew drugs become widespread, it would make the Sisyphean nature of stopping the supply of illegal narcotics even more obvious than it is now.
A growing of drugsscents and flavours once obtainable only from plants can now be made using genetically modified organisms. Researchers want to add opiates to that list because they are part of a family of molecules that may have useful medicinal properties see box, below. Plant yields of many of these molecules are vanishingly small, and the chemicals are difficult and expensive to make in the lab.
Getting yeast to pump them out would be far cheaper. Yeasts capable of doing this do not exist yet, but none of the researchers that New Scientist spoke to had any doubt that they soon will. Until recently, Dueber had thought Heroin is made creation of, say, a morphine-making yeast was 10 years away. He now thinks a low-yielding strain could be made in two or three years.
It might take many more years to produce a high-yielding strain. But once it exists, in theory anyone who got hold of it could make morphine in their kitchen using only a home-brewing kit. Merely drinking tiny quantities of the resulting brew — perhaps as little as a few millilitres — would get you high. We need to start thinking about the implications now, before such strains — or the recipes for genetically engineering them — become available, he says.
Other teams are working on producing tropane alkaloids — a family of compounds that include drugs such as cocaine. If these kinds of biosynthetic yeasts became widely available, they could transform the drug market. Instead of drugs like heroin and cocaine being grown abroad and imported by criminal gangs, they could be produced locally by individuals or small groups.
Brewing would also be much harder to detect or prevent than the cultivation of drug-yielding plants.
Growing cannabis indoors, for instance, requires a lot of electricity to power lights. Heroin is made drugs like methamphetamines in small illegal labs, meanwhile, requires not only expertise but also the right chemical ingredients. Cutting off the supply of these chemicals is one of the main strategies of drug enforcement efforts. This would be impossible with homebrew drugs — the only raw material needed is sugar. In a commentary in NatureBubela and her co-authors say governments need to act now if they want now to prevent morphine-making yeasts getting into the wrong hands.
Some fear that drug use could soar if home-brewing makes drugs easily available. But it is far from clear that this is true, especially for rich countries such as the UK. In theory, home-brew drugs could deprive traffickers in countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia of their main source of revenue — money that fuels corruption and other criminal activities, destabilises governments and even funds terrorism.
But it is hard to say how things would pan out. Until last year, for instance, coca cultivation in Colombia had been declining. All this assumes that bioengineered yeast capable of making drugs do become widely available. There are already groups of self-styled biohackerspeople who tinker with DNA in their spare time in community labs or their own garages.
They have no sinister motives, but their existence illustrates the relative ease of DIY genetic engineering. Oye and Bubela say four kinds of measures are needed. Distributing opiate-making yeasts strains should be made illegal. The strains themselves should be altered to make them hard to grow outside specialised facilities, for instance by making them dependent on unusual nutrients. The strains should also be kept in secure, government-d facilities.
And companies that sell custom DNA sequences should refuse to supply the genes needed to engineer such strains. Opiates are a small part of a much bigger family of around molecules, many of which are thought to have anticancer or antibiotic properties, says John Dueber of the University of California, Berkeley.
Getting yeasts to pump out these kinds of molecules cheaply would make it much easier to explore their potential. With the addition of further enzymes, it will be possible to create yeast strains that make one or more of these molecules. It will also be possible to create related molecules that do not exist in nature, including new kinds of opiates.
Three other groups have separately worked out the beginning, middle and end parts of the pathway needed to produce opiates from S-reticuline. So in theory we could create an opiate-producing yeast tomorrow by combining their work. In practice it is Heroin is made to take years to iron out all the wrinkles.
The aim is not to replace the existing legal supply of opiates, which are made from opium poppies mainly grown in Tasmania, Australia, but to produce novel and innovative forms of opiates, says Kenneth Oye of MIT. His team is working out how to make tropane alkaloids, a family of molecules that includes drugs like atropine, scopolamine and cocaine.
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Home-brew heroin: soon anyone will be able to make illegal drugs