Skip to main content

Scientists genetically engineer yeast to make THC and other medical marijuana chemicals

thc yeast medical marijuana shutterstock 245341675
Thomas Morris / Shutterstock
Medical marijuana is causing a stir as patients petition for access to cannabis-derived compounds for medicinal purposes, while governments worldwide seek to control the supply of the still-illegal plant. However, biochemists at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany may have a solution to this conundrum — THC-producing yeast. These genetically-modified organisms are potentially capable of synthesizing THC, and other medically important marijuana compounds, using an affordable method which can be scaled for bulk production.

The team at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany published the details on their THC-producing yeast in a recent issue of the scientific journal, Biotechnology Letters. The process used the gene for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) synthase, an enzyme responsible for the production of THC, and expressed it in two strains of yeast. Using these strains, the team was able to produce small amounts of THC and cannabidiol, another medically active compound found in marijuana which is used to treat epilepsy and other diseases. With the help of THC Pharm of Frankfurt, biochemist Oliver Kayser hopes to increase production to an industrial level, while also hoping to duplicate the entire chemical pathway of THC production, not just the final stage.

Related Videos

Researchers from Germany’s Technical University of Dortmund are not the only ones interested in using yeast to make marijuana compounds. Scientists from England’s Anandia Laboratories and Canada’s Hyasynth Bio are also hard at work developing their own strains of THC-producing yeast. However, these teams already have some stiff competition from an unexpected source — the marijuana plant itself. Some strains of the marijuana plant are bursting with THC, with up to 30 percent THC per dry weight. Called the “the Ferrari of the plant world” by Anandia Laboratories founder Dr. Jonathan Page, it appears the marijuana plant is hard to beat.

Researchers are not giving up on genetic engineering, though. The production of THC from yeast is desirable as it makes THC affordable and easy to obtain, clearly a win-win situation for both patients and scientists. Patients who need THC could purchase the less expensive form of the chemical derived from yeast instead of opting for chemically synthesized pills, which tend to be expensive for consumers. It also spares patients and scientists from the complicated issue of growing and obtaining medical marijuana plants. Yeast production also may improve access to THC and marijuana’s other medically-important constituents, making it possible to test the medical effectiveness of THC, cannabidiol, and other chemicals in both animal and human studies.

Editors' Recommendations

CRISPR 101: A crash course on the gene editing tool that’s changing the world

For something that's been called "a household name for molecular biologists," many of you have probably never heard of CRISPR, and don’t know why you should be excited (or, possibly, terrified). It's all about advanced gene therapy and splicing – and it's bringing sci-fi ideas straight into reality. Here's a quick FAQ on the science behind CRISPR and why the world is paying such close attention.
Okay, what is CRISPR and what does it stand for?
CRISPR refers to unusual DNA sequences that help protect organisms by identifying threats – especially viruses – and attacking them. The name stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Yes, that sounds a little ridiculous, but it's actually a very accurate description when looking at the DNA sequences themselves. They are clustered, they are spaced out at clear intervals, and when assigned letter values they do look like short palindromes repeating over and over with slight variations.

Caroline Davis2010 | Flickr

Read more
Yale scientists edit genetic diseases out of mice before birth; humans are next
china wireless router pregnant women setting woman

Gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 can be used to astonishing, potential life-altering effect, such as one demonstration involving a possible treatment for ALS. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Yale University have now made a significant breakthrough in the technology’s usefulness -- by demonstrating how gene editing can be used to treat genetic conditions during fetal development.

While so far it has only been showcased in an experiment with mice, in the future it could help treat the millions of children who are born each year with severe genetic disorders or birth defects. At present, some of these genetic conditions can be detected during pregnancy, although they cannot be corrected during fetal development.

Read more
New startup promises ‘world’s first’ CRISPR-powered disease detection
CRISPR gene-editing technology

The Mammoth CRISPR Platform

Over the past few years, the gene-editing tool CRISPR has breathed new life into the field of genetics. Suddenly, genetic engineering was deemed both simple and efficient. CRISPR has been used to make specific tweaks to the genomes of myriad plants and animals, editing things like horns out of cattle and disease-resistance into crops.

Read more