The yeast used by people for millennia to ferment alcoholic drinks can now produce cannabinoids – chemicals with medicinal properties as well as occasionally mind-altering characteristics in cannabis.
The accomplishment, described in Nature on February 27, transforms a sugar known as galactose in brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) into THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive compound in Cannabis sativa or cannabis. Moreover, the modified enzyme can yield CBD or cannabidiol, another essential cannabinoid that’s been famous lately for its possible therapeutic benefits, such as pain-relief and anti-anxiety effects.
The aspirations are that this process of fermentation will empower manufacturers to produce CBD, THC, and rare cannabinoids that exist in small amounts in nature more efficiently, reliably, and cheaply than traditional plant-based cultivation.
Past work detailed constructing parts of the production of cannabinoid in yeast, but not the entire process. According to Hyasynth Bio chief executive Kevin Chen, the recent study is the first to combine and show that it works within one cell. The Montreal, Canada-based Hyasynth Bio is one of about ten companies collaborating to produce cannabinoids in altered yeast, algae, or bacteria.
Scientists have produced anti-malaria medicines for economic purposes, and opiates in the laboratory, using the same yeast-grown methods previously. However, the technology for producing cannabinoids is not ready for commercial production any time soon. According to AltaCorp Capital cannabis analyst David Kideckel of Toronto, Canada, it will take at most two years before synthetic cannabinoids become cheap enough to sell to the general public or pharmaceutical companies.
The University of California Berkeley synthetic biologist Jay Keasling and his colleagues changed various genes in Saccharomyces cerevisiae to create a cannabinoid production in yeast. Then, they introduced other bacteria coming from the five types and the cannabis sativa plant. The researchers needed to develop 16 genetic modifications to transform galactose into inactive forms of CBD or THC. Applying heat to the cannabinoids then changes them into their active forms. The group of scientists was able to produce about 8 ml per liter of THC and a low level of CBD.
However, according to Librede chief executive Jason Poulos, the researchers must increase the yield by about 100-hold to make it cost effective. Librede, based in Carlsbad, California, has the first patent on the process of producing cannabinoids from the yeast.
In 2015, Demetrix, a company founded by Keasling, worked on this issue. According to the company’s chief executive Jeff Ubersax, it was able to boost the cannabinoid yield by different orders of magnitude. The group of Keasling was able to transform the result to different fatty acids into cannabinoids. Thus, it may be possible to patent it because it created new cannabinoids that could interest pharmaceutical companies, especially those that explored cannabis-based formulations actively.
According to the University of British Columbia chemical engineer Vikramaditya Yadav, the pharmaceutical industry will slosh the molecules up. Yadav is collaborating with InMed Pharmaceuticals in Vancouver, Canada to manufacture cannabinoids from bacteria.
No Plants Required
However, some people argue that fermenting the yeast may not be the best procedure to produce cannabinoids. For instance, Toronto-based Trait Biosciences is coming up with water-soluble cannabis. It is attempting to change the cannabis plants so that the tissue, and not just the resin, can produce the compounds.
Earlier, the University of California, Los Angeles biochemist Jim Bowie described the process of changing sugar into cannabinoid without necessarily creating reactions within a cell. His group of researchers was able to produce a prototype of the inactive forms of CBD and THC commercially. They hope to advance the approach through Invizyne Technologies, a start-up.