Yeast Engineered to Make Cannabinoids

Yeast Engineered to Make Cannabinoids

Librede, based in Carlsbad, California, has the first patent on the process of producing cannabinoids from the yeast.

Based on the trials, it is hoped that the technique can be used to manufacture THC, CBD and rare cannabinoids at a low-priced and in a way that does not have a significant environmental impact.

The volume of the legal cannabis market is expected to soar almost 14-fold within six years according to research by Euromonitor International.

Keasling, the Philomathia Foundation Chair in Alternative Energy at Berkeley, and his colleagues will report their results online February 27 in advance of publication in the journal Nature.

After that, their yeast could produce CBGA, which was converted into THCA and CBDA with the addition of more enzymes. Medications containing THC have been approved by regulators in several countries, including the U.S., while CBD, or cannabidiol, has been approved as a treatment for childhood epileptic seizures and is being investigated as a therapy for conditions including anxiety, Parkinson's disease and chronic pain. Extracting chemicals from pot plants, of course, requires marijuana cultivation, another industry with a problematic environmental track record. One study estimated that California's cannabis industry accounted for 3 percent of the state's electricity usage. Yeast seemed like a good option because its metabolic pathways have been hijacked before to produce other chemicals, like insulin, anti-malaria drugs and blood-clotting factors.

Scientists from the University of Berkeley have now used simple brewer's yeast to produce marijuana's main ingredients, the powerful THC and non-psychoactive CBD. They readily convert to CBG, THC and CBD when exposed to light and heat.

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After successfully producing CBGA, the researchers were able to add more enzymes to the pathway to convert it into cannabinoids and eventually to assemble all the steps into a single strain of yeast capable of turning sugar into THC and CBD.

To produce cannabinoids, researchers essentially feed sugar to genetically engineered yeast to produce THC, CBD and other cannabinoids normally produced only by marijuana plants.

One step, however, proved to be a roadblock for Keasling's group and competing groups: an enzyme that performs a key chemical step in making CBGA in the marijuana plant didn't work in yeast. Molson Coors has embarked on a joint venture with Quebec's Hexo's Corp to develop a range of cannabis drinks in Canada, while Heineken's Lagunitas label has launched a brand specialising in non-alcoholic drinks infused with THC, marijuana's active ingredient.

"It worked like gangbusters", said Keasling. In total, 16 genetic modifications were needed to allow the yeast to transform galactose into inactive forms of THC or CBD. This new yeast can also synthesize cannabidiol (CBD), another major cannabinoid with potential therapeutic benefits, including anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and analgesic effects. Then, they introduced other bacteria coming from the five types and the cannabis sativa plant.

Keasling and several of his colleagues founded a company that is licensing the research and working to commercialize the yeast fermentation process.

To be clear, the researchers' objective is to help produce low-priced and efficient cannabis for medicinal use.

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