"For the consumer, the benefits are high-quality, low-priced CBD and THC: you get exactly what you want from yeast", said Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of bioengineering and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "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".
In research announced on Wednesday by the University of California at Berkeley, a team of synthetic biologists modified brewer's yeast to produce a range of cannabinoids, which are compounds in cannabis that affect the brain and body.
The discovery has major implications for the cannabis industry, as it could significantly simplify many processes. So some forms of yeast will turn the CBGa into THC, while others will turn it into CBD. It's also more environmentally friendly to boot.
'Because the enzymes are sloppy they will accept other acids and that allowed us to create a whole bunch of unnatural cannabinoids that have never been found before, ' says Keasling. It is also being investigated as a therapy for numerous conditions, including anxiety, Parkinson's disease and chronic pain.
But medical research on the more than 100 other chemicals in marijuana has been difficult, because the chemicals occur in tiny quantities, making them hard to extract from the plant. 'We put it into yeast and it didn't work, so we had to go back into the plant and look for the right gene.' They searched for candidates in the genomes of C. sativa and another closely related plant, eventually discovering a cannabis enzyme that could do the job.
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Plus, he added, there is "the possibility of new therapies based on novel cannabinoids: the rare ones that are almost impossible to get from the plant, or the unnatural ones, which are impossible to get from the plant".
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. Heating the microbes switched the cannabinoids into their active forms.
"It worked like gangbusters", said Keasling. "This work lays the foundation for the large-scale fermentation of cannabinoids, independent of Cannabis cultivation, which will enable the pharmacological study of these highly promising compounds and could ultimately lead to new and better medicines", they write in their paper.
The new product has now been licensed to Demetrix, a biotech company founded by study co-author Jay Keasling. Although the quantities produced are low - just 8mg of THC per litre of yeast broth - Keasling says the process could be optimised and scaled-up.
Leading this will be CBD- and THC-based vitamins and dietary supplements, which Euromonitor forecasts will make up 2 per cent of that segment's total value sales by 2025, followed by topical analgesics, sleeping aids and sports nutrition, Euromonitor stated. "From a functional ingredient to an intoxicating buzz, cannabis will reshape fast-moving consumer goods, with food, beverages, beauty, health and tobacco having the most potential for disruption".