While most of the time we hear talk of yeast when discussing bread and beer, or when talking about infections, this microscopic fungus has been a major player in science for years. Scientists have achieved the almost impossible when it comes to manipulating compounds and substances to create new things. In August it was reported that scientists had been able to manipulate and genetically engineer yeast to produce hydrocodone, a very powerful pain killer; and now, there are reports of scientists in Germany at the University of Dortmund having been able to produce THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, from genetically-altered yeast.
Marijuana has a very jaded reputation in the United States and throughout the world. While many people are predisposed to believe that marijuana is the drug of lazy underachievers only content with eating Cheetos and drinking chocolate milk all day, those states that have legalized medical marijuana have found that the drug does, in fact, have a place in the medical community as a true option for pain relief. THC, one of the main chemical compounds in marijuana, has been touted not only as a pain reliever, but it’s also been shown to impair memories related to PTSD, improve breathing in asthmatics, relieve eye pressure in people with glaucoma, stimulate appetites, and help those with sleep issues or insomnia. Cannabidiol, a small chemical in marijuana, has been studied for its use in treating epilepsy.
While modifying yeast to produce THC is an enormous challenge, scientists see a benefit to being able to alter a very cheap substance to aid in the study of the different effects (and benefits) THC has on the human body. It’s not a new idea: scientists in Japan published a study eight years ago when they were able to insert a gene into a yeast that coaxed the yeast into producing a necessary enzyme required to produce THC. As time has gone by, advances in technology (and with increasingly better, cheaper, and faster DNA analysis tools), scientists and researchers have finally been able to identify the key genes in the marijuana plant that produce THC.
Some question the need to produce THC from yeast. With synthetics already available on the market (Marinol and Cesamet among others), and the actual efficiency of modern-day marijuana plants to produce THC (some strains have been cultivated so well over the past few decades that they can provide up to 30% THC content per dry weight), there are questions as to why we would need to genetically alter yeast when we already have the real thing, as well as alternative options. Those championing the scientists and researchers point to the other compounds and chemicals found in marijuana that can be produced from yeast: cannabidivarin, another small chemical that has promise for preventing seizures; and tetrahydrocannabivarin, another chemical that could possibly be used as an anti-inflammatory.
While some would argue that genetically engineering yeast to produce THC is a wasted effort, scientists and researchers find it as a valuable option to study the different chemicals found in marijuana. Synthetics are available, but yeast is much cheaper and could potentially provide faster and more readily-available access to the chemicals. Also, by producing THC in a lab, any stigma or drug laws could be bypassed by both scientists and researchers. Regardless of where the THC comes from, an alternative option to synthetic drugs is always promising when potential medical benefits are possible.