Out of a poppy and into a yeast. Scientists have engineered yeast to make sugar into thebaine, a precursor to opiates such as morphine. The work brings together the beginning and recently identified central step of the pathway into a single strain of yeast. The researchers published their findings August 13 in Science.
Making yeast that can eventually produce an opiate required enzymes from mammals, plants, bacteria and a few from the yeast itself. The result is a proof-of-concept that yeast can take in sugar and ferment it into opiates and other drugs, with the goal of using them for research into new pharmaceuticals. The researchers estimate that the full pathway from sugar to morphine will require a 7-million-fold improvement in yield before it can put a poppy out of business.