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Biologists Just Hacked Yeast to Make Marijuana Compounds Without Marijuana

There are a whole lot of reasons that the War on Drugs was and is, well, kind of silly.

A lot of those reasons are more about common sense — prohibiting the legal purchase of something doesn’t stop it from being purchased, at a premium and at great risk of personal bodily harm. A biologist at Berkeley University just led a study, published by Naturethat proves how truly futile it is, but you know, scientifically.

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Yeast biologist and professor Dr. Jay Keasling Ph.D. led the study. Essentially, Keasling and his team “hacked” the genes of yeast cells and directed them to create cannabinoids. What are cannabinoids, you ask?

They’re the compounds in marijuana that make you feel high and/or relieve your pain or stress — THC and CBD.

Keasling and his colleagues show that yeast can be used to produce THCA (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) and CBDA (cannabidiolic acid), the chemical precursors to THC and CBD. (Inverse)

So how’d Keasling’s team do it? They basically takeover the yeast’s normal operations and send it special coded instruction to make the weed compounds instead.

…allowing scientists to insert a gene from a different organism — carrying the instructions for making a different chemical — into the genome of the yeast.

…the team gave their yeast a Cannabis-derived gene that carries instructions for producing olivetolic acid, a precursor compound to THC or CBD. They also gave them Cannabis genes that would create the enzymes that could actually turn olivetolic acid into THC and CBD. And so, together with a steady diet of the simple sugar galactose, the yeast had everything they needed to do the team’s bidding.

Fans of GMO science probably aren’t too shocked by this news. Yeast has already been shown how easy it is to manipulate into creating different compounds.

Genetically modified yeast has previously been modified to produce hops to impart beer’s flavor, synthetic egg whites, and even chemicals to flavor chocolate

It seems kind of silly for our government to try and stop people from buying dime bags, now that we know kids at the local universities can start lab-engineering the things in it that get you high in the first place, to me at least. I’m one of those people who has a “let adults choose any vice they want” view of things anyway, but when I find out that scientists can just hack a yeast cell and tell it to make the stuff I like about weed, it feels like it proves my point about how pointless it is to prohibit the growing and harvesting of marijuana.

There are people sitting in jail right at this very moment for possessing and selling a product whose properties can be synthesized elsewhere. This is a science-related site, so I won’t beleaguer the point, but there’s nothing scientific or fair about laws with no scientific basis. Just sayin’.

Of course, the the even larger implication of this study is the potential to derive beneficial compounds from a variety of sources. If later studies, for instance, show certain health benefits from cannabinoids, pharmaceutical developers will have a larger canvas of products from which to derive them.

The point of this study was to figure out how to produce cannabinoids “independent of cannabis cultivation”; in other words, to reap the benefits of marijuana without needing the plant.

From a medical standpoint, being able to get cannabinoids from places other than marijuana is a huge lift. Apparently, there are actually pretty low concentrations of them in marijuana, so it’s a costly process in time and money to to extract them. Dr. Keasling’s study seems to suggest getting CBD for drugs that help with seizures could made much easier, and could potentially lead to substantially lower costs and higher inventories.

There is a big upside to doing so: Cannabinoids currently used for prescription drugs (like the CBD-based anti-seizure drug Epidiolex) are derived directly from the plant, where they don’t actually exist in very high concentrations. If the same compound can be produced artificially, it’ll be much easier to scale up to make prescription drugs.

If people have gotten used to taking a pill full of high-grade, painkilling opiates, maybe this study will help get us to the same point with cannabinoid-based pills.

It also cannot go without saying that this study proves how important it is to not be anti-GMO. The simple truth is that GMOs are safe, as Dan is so fond of saying, but one look at this study and you can see how the process can be leveraged to come up with solutions not problems.

Studies like these are vital if society is going to move away from treating cannabinoids and marijuana illogically and out of fear. Only time will tell, as always.


Writer/comedian James Schlarmann is the founder of The Political Garbage Chute and his work has been featured on The Huffington Post. You can follow James on Facebook and Instagram, but not Twitter because he has a potty mouth.

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