The Poppy's Secret: Scientists Find the Genes That Make Morphine

By Andrew Moseman | March 15, 2010 10:53 am

PoppyFor millennia, humans have used the codeine and morphine of the poppy plant as painkillers—or recreational drugs. For the last half-century, says Peter Facchini, biologists have tried to unlock just how the plant produces these powerful chemicals, and wound up frustrated. But now, in a study in Nature Chemical Biology, Facchini’s team says it has isolated the two genes that are the key to this process, which scientists could use to create some of medicine’s most valuable chemicals without the fields of poppy plants that give rise to the trade of illegal narcotics, especially heroin.

Both of the genes produced enzymes that helped to convert precursor chemicals. One, thebaine 6-O-demethylase (T60DM), had a role in the production of codeine. The other, codeine O-demethylase (CODM) transformed codeine into morphine [Press Association]. Lead author Jillian Hegel, Facchini’s grad student, studied four different poppy relatives and sifted through a library of 23,000 genes to find these two. She put these genes into E. coli bacteria that sat overnight in a flask with a chemical called thebaine that’s present in poppy seeds to see if the bacteria would synthesize the painkillers. “When she came back the next morning, the thebaine was all gone,” says Facchini. “That’s when her eyes got big…. Finding it all had been turned into morphine — that gives a grad student a great sense of power, when they can make morphine” [Science News].

There are several upshots to Hegel and Facchini’s find. First, they say, finding both the enzymes and the genes responsible for them means that scientists are much closer to the possibility of creating these painkillers without the poppy plant, perhaps skirting the social and political morass of agricultural poppy production, the source of heroin [Science News]. Getting vats of microbes to produce the drugs could also be cheaper and more efficient than cultivating vast poppy fields.

In addition, the finding may someday sweep away the inefficient current method of making codeine. The poppy produces it naturally, but in smaller quantity than morphine, so drug-makers usually synthesize codeine from morphine. However, Facchini says, “With this discovery, we can potentially create plants that will stop production at codeine [and so not produce morphine]. We are also working towards the synthesis of codeine and other opiate drugs more efficiently and economically in controlled bioprocessing facilities” [The Independent].

Lastly, there’s the reality that about 10 times as much opium is made for the illegal heroin trade as for the legitimate manufacture of morphine and codeine [The Independent]. Theoretically, scientists could use engineered viruses to shut down the opiate-producing genes in the poppies of say, Afghanistan, to crush the illegal drug trade. But beyond the sheer difficulty of executing such a thing, the political consequences of such hubris could be unpredictable, Charles S. Helling of the State Department’s narcotics division tells Science News.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Biology of Addiction
DISCOVER: Vital Signs, all our medical mysteries
80beats: To Help Heroin Addicts, Give Them… Prescription Heroin?
80beats: A Prompt Dose of Morphine Could Cut PTSD Risk for Wounded Soldiers

Image: flickr / Visualdensity

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • Harry

    Im suprised the researchers were not arrested by the DEA for making Morphine?

  • Chris

    In Reply to Harry’s statement about the DEA the biggest reason they would not be shut down by the DEA is that the research was done in Canada. See http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/03/14/calgary-poppy-genes.html for more details.

  • http://ccihq.info Uncle Bob

    It seems almost tragic that research such as this can be done in Canada and other places around the world, but our (U.S.) war on drugs is too important to allow this in our country.

  • Cory

    Wow, the idea of bankrupting the entire economy of Afghanistan to fight some misguided war on drugs is a bit frightening.

  • Paul

    Once morphine can be grown in vats, opiates will be even more impossible to control than today. At least with ample supply the illegal drug producers will face brutal price competition and have smaller profits, and the old style producers still growing poppies will be driven out of business.

  • Tommy

    Why don’t we just legalize the stuff and tax it like we do booze and tobacco? We could stop spending BILLIONS on the Drug Wars and generate revenue to help pay down the national debt.

  • http://bonsaikingdom.com bonsai king

    It is a big step on counter terrorism. Terrorism is largely financed by oil and drugs. So keep it up!!!

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    It is kind of comforting to know that we humans don’t know it all, and nature really has the most experience, due to millions of years of her own experiments. I know we tend to look at science like we do magic, something mysterious and secret, and that is just what our planet is, a mother of the secrets of life!We really should listen more, and take a little time to appreciate just how lucky we are. I also can’t help but feel we should legalize and tax things like poppies. You know, the people in all areas of the world have been cultivating medicinal plants for thousands of years, that is a lot of knowledge to just throw away because we could do it synthetically.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    I want to make sure I do not diminish the awesome discovery of how to accomplish this with science, I LOVE science! Great job, and discovery!

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