Brewing bad: home brewed morphine

By Efrosini Costa

Brewing bad: home brewed morphine
Scientists have discovered a way to brew morphine using the same DIY beer-making kit.

The researchers have found a way to genetically modify yeast to help convert sugar into morphine.

While the move is a great step towards affordable pain relief, the scientists warn you should not try this at home.

Those who brew their own beer at home will know that the entire process is reliant on microscopic yeast that turns sugar into alcohol.

By borrowing DNA from plants, scientists were able to replicate the process so that the sugar could be converted into morphine.

Up until now the researchers had hit a road block in the experiment – the production of an intermediary chemical called reticuline.

But a team at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered how to negotiate this last piece of the morphine-brewing puzzle.

“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,” said Dr John Dueber, a bioengineer at the university.

“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.”

Published in the journal, Nature Chemical Biology, the study means that in the future the pain reliever, that is used in many hospitals the world over, will be easier to produce and more affordable.

At the moment the production of morphine requires a poppy harvest to manufacture.

A brewed version could also allow scientists to tweak the formula to create new types of pain-killers.

This concept of using microscopic organisms to make drugs is not new, in fact, insulin manufactured for diabetics has been made this way for decades.

However some critics have raised concerns about such advances in morphine production being exploited by the illegal narcotics trade.

“In principle, anyone with access to the yeast strain and basic skills in fermentation would be able to grow morphine producing yeast using a a home-brew kit for beer-making,” read one comment in the journal.

Experts have also called for tight control of the organisms genetically modified to produce narcotics to combat any illegal practice.


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