Yeast cells producing the yellow beet pigment betaxanthin, which UC Berkeley researchers used to quickly identify key enzymes in the production of benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (BIAs), the metabolites in the poppy plant that could lead to morphine, antibiotics and other pharmaceutical agents. (William DeLoache at UC Berkeley)

A new paper in Nature Chemical Biology suggests that yeast can be modified to produce opiates from sugar -- albeit not without a whole lot of biology expertise -- meaning that dangerous drugs could be made at home the same way hobbyists create beer. But researchers warn that regulators should act quickly to keep DIY home-brewers from figuring out the process for themselves.

Creating the same opiates poppies do (which go into familiar drugs like morphine and oxycodone) is an intriguing prospect from a pharmaceutical standpoint. Cultivating yeast is much simpler than growing fields of poppies, and yeast-born opiates have more potential to be tweaked for specific medical purposes.

“It’s hard to add or subtract genes into the plant, and plants grow very slowly,” lead author John Dueber of UC Berkeley told WIRED. “Whereas, we can easily put in different DNA and change combinations of genes in yeast—and yeast can double every two hours.”

In the new paper, Dueber and his colleagues tweaked an enzyme in yeast, allowing it to turn sugar into reticuline. Reticuline isn't an actual opiate, but it's a chemical precursor that can be used to make morphine and codeine, among other drugs. Dueber estimates that a strain of yeast allowing for the complete formation of opiates from sugar could be just a year or two away.

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“What you really want to do from a fermentation perspective is to be able to feed the yeast glucose, which is a cheap sugar source, and have the yeast do all the chemical steps required downstream to make your target therapeutic drug,” Dueber said in a statement. “With our study, all the steps have been described, and it’s now a matter of linking them together and scaling up the process. It’s not a trivial challenge, but it’s doable.”

It might not ever be easy to get a worthwhile yield of drugs from a homebrew kit full of modified yeast. But because of the potential dangers of home-brewed opiates, Dueber and his co-authors hope that regulation will jump ahead of the science to keep DIY-ers from ever taking advantage of the new synthetic biology.

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“Things are moving really fast right now,” Kenneth Oye, an MIT professor not involved in the study told BuzzFeed News.

“It’s not like tomorrow someone’s going to have a fully integrated, one-pot pathway to go from sugar to morphine,” Oye said. “But it’s coming.”

Oye, who penned a commentary article to accompany the new study in Nature, believes that regulations should be put in place to make brewing with the engineered yeast at home illegal. But others argue that if the process actually turns out to be as simple as brewing beer at home, squeezing people with regulation would just create black market demand for the yeast. And with synthetic biology turning into an increasingly accessible hobby thanks to better, cheaper equipment and techniques, it might just be a matter of time before the strain is recreated outside of a research lab.

“An additional concern is that once the knowledge of how to create an opiate-producing strain is out there, anyone trained in basic molecular biology could theoretically build it," Dueber said.

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