Can This GMO Yeast Make THC?

People have strong opinions about GMOs these days. But what about a GMO yeast that produces THC?

Oct 11, 2016

Cannabis plants are illegal in most places around the world. So, how do researchers get their hands on THC? When materials are illegal or scarce, scientists resort to a more creative method: genetic engineering. In this case, scientists have genetically modified fungi to produce cannabinoids. But, can this GMO yeast really make THC? 

A creative solution to a drug problem

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Genetically modified organisms can do all sorts of things these days. Pest resistance has been engendered into varieties of corn and soybean. Thanks to genetic modifications, some strains of yeast can produce the painkiller hydrocodone. We have yeast to thank yet again for the anti-malarial drug artemisinin.

Now, German scientists have a modified fungi that can produce THC. Well, the yeast (Pichia [Komagataella] pastoris) doesn’t produce THC exactly. Rather, researchers have given the yeast the ability to produce the enzyme that makes the psychoactive.

The enzyme is called THC synthase. It’s the protein that acts as a microscopic chemical factory, producing Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA).THCA is the precursor to THC. In order for THCA to become psychoactive, it needs to be heated.

The same team engineered a different type of yeast to create nonpsychoactive cannabidiol (CBD), the same compound that is used in the new epilepsy drug, Epidiolex.

Why yeast and not cannabis?

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Genetically altering an organism to get around a research ban may seem a bit over the top. But, even if cannabis were legal worldwide, modifying an organism has some perks.

If THC were to be used in pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical researchers would need an awful lot of it to make drugs. Furthermore, they would need a consistent supply that is relatively easy to access in large doses.

Relying solely on plant cultivation is timely and can produce variable results. Though modern day strains contain up to 30% THC, it can take longer than three months for the plants to mature. They also require large amounts of capital, space, and manpower to produce.

Theoretically, the yeast would drastically cut down production time and make it far easier to incorporate cannabinoids into new pharmaceutical drugs. It will also help drug manufacturers avoid the laborious process of synthesizing THC in the lab. These GMO advancements would ease production complications.

Cannabis still wins

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The yeast research is still in its early stages and is not yet ready to take over the cannabis drug market. For now, the real plant is still the most reliable option for companies hoping to manufacture new lines of cannabinoid therapies.

However, researchers are hopeful that genetic engineering is the way to move forward with commercialized cannabis pharmaceuticals.

There’s another downfall to the yeast. While this GMO is certainly amazing, this engineering project only addresses two cannabinoids of many. The synergy between different cannabinoids and other phytochemicals is what makes the cannabis plant stand apart as medicine.

There have been many recent efforts to uncover the ways in which compounds in the herb work together to create different effects. Scientists have learned a lot.

For example, CBD and THC together produce amplified pain-fighting effects. CBD and another cannabinoid, THCV, help stabilize blood sugar when used together.

Yet, the science world is still a long way from figuring out all of the ways in which the plant benefits the body.

Cannabis is more than just THC or CBD, so these psychedelic engineered fungi are still a far cry from the capabilities of the real herb.

Oct 11, 2016