Researchers genetically modify yeast to ‘brew’ THC and CBD

Sugar high: the yeast that can be used to brew cannabis, not beer

Sugar high: the yeast that can be used to brew cannabis, not beer

THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, is now approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat nausea experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy and to increase the appetite of those suffering from AIDS. After much experimentation, the correct enzymes were identified to create cannabinoid CBGA, which then led researchers to produce more commercially desirable cannabinoids like THC and CBD. It is being investigated as a therapy for numerous conditions, including anxiety, Parkinson's disease and chronic pain.

Researchers hypothesize that the new method could have a lesser environmental impact than cannabis plant cultivation, and increase accessibility by rendering cannabinoids less expensive for scientists to study.

Scientists were able to turn yeast into a cannabinoid factory by engineering it to turn sugar into other chemicals that react with added enzymes. From that, a long list of cannabinoids can be produced, including THC and CBD, the latter of which you can now find touted as a cure-all at your local gas station.

In the case of this research, published this week in Nature, the sugar - galactose - is converted first into cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), which is described as the "mother of all cannabinoids", and then into other cannabinoids. The researchers even argue that they can modified the yeast to make it capable of producing ANY cannabinoid, not just the two major ones that most of us know. "The researchers ended up inserting more than a dozen genes into yeast, many of them copies of genes used by the marijuana plant to synthesize cannabinoids".

Intriguingly, the GM yeast also produces its own cannabinoids that aren't made by the plant.

But the team didn't stop there; they realised that the enzymatic steps involved in making the CBGA were flexible, so they tried out different starter chemicals in the place of the one the marijuana plant used. 'Once we found it, it worked really well in yeast, ' Keasling says.

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From 2018 to 2025, legal cannabis is estimated to grow more than 2000 per cent globally, compared to alcoholic drinks at 1.4 per cent and tobacco at 1.2 per cent, according to the report.

The scientists, who have already launched a cannabinoid brewing company, say the process is considerably cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly than extracting the compounds from marijuana plants. Molson Coors has embarked on a joint venture with Quebec's Hexo's Corp to develop a range of cannabis drinks in Canada, while Heineken's Lagunitas label has launched a brand specialising in non-alcoholic drinks infused with THC, marijuana's active ingredient. Though the yeast is mostly pumping out these THC and CBD acidic precursors, the compounds still need to be separated from other byproducts in the process.

Keasling subsequently founded an Emeryville, California, company, Demetrix Inc., which d'Espaux and Wong later joined, that licensed the technology from Berkeley to use yeast fermentation to make cannabinoids.

To be clear, the researchers' objective is to help produce low-priced and efficient cannabis for medicinal use. "And manufacturers don't have to worry about contamination - for example, THC in CBD - that would make you high".

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation (1330914).

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