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Home-brew kit turns sugar into morphine

Scientists say breakthrough could lead to new types of painkiller

Mark Gould

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Scientists from Berkley, California have "brewed" morphine from glucose using genetically modified yeast and the same equipment used to make home-brewed beer.

The findings*, published in Nature Chemical Biology, raise hopes for developing new types of painkillers, but the authors also raise concerns about the potential for "home-brewed" illegal drugs.

The Scientists from the University of California used DNA from plants, to genetically engineer yeasts that can then perform a series of steps needed to convert sugar into morphine. Until now a crucial stage of the process - the production of an intermediary chemical called reticuline - had been a stumbling block.

That has been solved by the Berkeley team who say it should now be possible to put all the steps together and "brew" morphine.

One of the authors, Dr John Dueber, a bioengineer at the university, said: "What you really want to do from a fermentation perspective is to be able to feed the yeast glucose, which is a cheap sugar source, and have the yeast do all the chemical steps required downstream to make your target therapeutic drug.

"With our study, all the steps have been described, and it's now a matter of linking them together and scaling up the process.

"It's not a trivial challenge, but it's doable."

The scientists say brewed morphine would be easier to produce as it does not rely on poppy harvests. It could also allow scientists to tweak each of the steps to develop new types of painkiller.

But there are concerns these latest advances could provide opportunities for criminals.

"In principle, anyone with access to the yeast strain and basic skills in fermentation would be able to grow morphine producing yeast using a home-brew kit for beer-making," reads an accompanying comment piece in the same journal which goes on to call for tight controls on such genetically modified yeasts.

* William C DeLoache, et al. An enzyme-coupled biosensor enables (S)-reticuline production in yeast from glucose. Nature Chemical Biology, 2015. doi:10.1038/nchembio.1816

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