Get ready to dust off that junky little beer-brewing kit you may have received as a high-school graduation gift (just me?), because it’s now possible to brew codeine and morphine using three new genetically-modified types of brewer’s yeast. We may never cough again (because we’d only use this to make reasonably-dosed codeine cough syrup, of course).
The three new types of yeast, when used in the correct sequence, convert glucose to morphine. It’s a 15-step reaction, and the New York Times reports “the yeasts are so fragile and the fermentation process so delicate” that home brewers shouldn’t plan on any sort of Breaking Bad future for themselves. In theory, in the lab, this works and could eventually make opioid drugs easier to produce. Right now, though, it takes almost 53 gallons (300 liters) of this yeast to convert common sugars into a single 30 mg dose of morphine. Damn it all.
The yeasts were made by inserting DNA from poppy plants, sugar beets and a soil bacterium into the yeast. Fourteen out of the fifteen steps were discovered by John Dueber and colleagues at U.C. Berkeley and Vincent Martin and colleagues at Concordia University, Montreal. The remaining step was discovered at the University of Calgary. You can read the full paper at Nature Chemical Biology. We know this little guy did: