The cannabis plant may no longer be needed for THC and CBD.
By Yasmin Tayag
One of the biggest hurdles to getting people on board with medical marijuanais that some people don’t like marijuana. Even as legalization becomes widespread, weed has a long way to go before it fully sheds its bad reputation. In the meantime, the findings of a Nature study published Wednesday could help make marijuana useful to people who are leery of its past. By hacking the biology of yeast, scientists found a way to make marijuana’s active ingredients without the marijuana plant.
The study, led by Jay Keasling, Ph.D., a University of California, Berkeley chemical engineering and bioengineering professor, shows that yeast can be genetically modified to produce some major cannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in marijuana.
The most well-known cannabinoids are THC, known for its ability to get people high, and CBD (cannabidiol), associated with relief from pain and anxiety. These compounds, and the dozens of other known cannabinoids in the plant, seem to play various roles in the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana. 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.
This technique is nothing new: Genetically modified yeast has previously been modified to produce hops to impart beer’s flavor, synthetic egg whites, and even chemicals to flavor chocolate. Genetic modification techniques like CRISPR/Cas9 can be used to hijack the yeast’s usual processes for producing compounds by allowing scientists to insert a gene from a different organism — carrying the instructions for making a different chemical — into the genome of the yeast. As the yeast cells carry on their lives as usual, they produce the desired chemical, which the scientists can then collect.
In this case, 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.
“Together,” the team writes, “these results lay the foundation for the large-scale production of both natural and synthetic cannabinoids, which could improve pharmacological research into these compounds.”
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