Synthetic biologists have engineered a strain of yeast to produce thebaine, an opiate closely related to morphine normally harvested from opium poppy plants. To do so, they engineered the microbes to express a medley of 21 genes, some from yeast themselves, as well as others from plants, bacteria, and even a rodent. By adding two additional genes, the engineers also coaxed yeast to make hydrocodone, one of the most commonly used painkillers on the market. The work may eventually help chemists come up with new painkillers and other medicines with fewer side effects, such as a lower propensity for addiction. Outsiders say the work is a landmark for the increasing sophistication of synthetic biology's ability to engineer complex metabolic pathways into microbes. But biopolicy experts worry that if drugmakers get their hands on opiate-making microbes, it could eventually enable them to brew heroin with ease.
Author: Robert F. Service