Yeast Can Now Produce THC, Marijuana’s Infamous Compound

By Carl Engelking | September 15, 2015 2:15 pm


Yeast, the sugar-gobbling microorganism that’s filled our bellies with beer and bread for millennia, has a new, increasingly important, role to play in society: serving as a therapeutic drug factory.

In August, scientists announced they had genetically engineered yeast to produce the painkiller hydrocodone, and even before that breakthrough, modified yeast churned out the anti-malarial drug artemisinin.

Now, scientists have customized yeast to create THC (the marijuana chemical that produces a “high”) and cannabidiol.

Drug Factories

Biochemists from the Technical University in Dortmund, Germany, created a genetically-engineered yeast strain to produce very small amounts of THC or cannabidiol. Unlike normal yeast, however, these custom yeast have to be fed cannabigerolic acid, which is a precursor molecule to THC and cannabidiol.

Using a molecular precursor as a starting point is a bit like reading a book from the middle chapters to its conclusion. Ideally, the entire process would start with simple sugars — or chapter 1 — rather than precursors to complete the entire chemical pathway that the marijuana plant does naturally. However, scientists believe they’ll get to that point and scale up production for industrial use in the near future, the New York Times reports.

The team published its work with the yeast strain that produces THC in the journal Biotechnology Letters. They also created a separate strain that produces cannabidiol, but those data are yet to be published.

A Research Boon

Marijuana is chock full of molecular compounds that are fascinating to scientists. Synthetic THC is already available in pill form and it is used to ease nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, or stimulate the appetites of people with H.I.V. or other infections. Cannabidiol, a compound that is not psychoactive, has shown potential to reduce the frequency of seizures in epileptic individuals.

Yeast factories could help scale up production of these chemicals not just for therapy, but for research too. Producing marijuana’s constituent compounds in vast quantities would give researchers a supply of marijuana’s myriad chemicals to better understand how, or if, they work as advertised.

Still, at the moment, the plant is far more efficient than the yeast — modern marijuana strains can contain more than 30 percent THC by dry weight. So there’s still a long way to go before THC-producing yeast change the landscape of cannabis research. Researchers will likely need to splice many more genes into species of yeast to complete the entire chemical reaction in a single strain. But at the rate that genetically-modified yeast research is advancing, it may not be a long wait.


Photo credit: Jan Faukner/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • Memy SelfAndi

    is it smokable?, hahahaha…..

    • Fake Name

      probably tastes like you’re smoking dirty socks though….

  • John K

    Well, normally you wouldn’t use yeast to make brownies.

  • lakua

    It’s not clear why they’d want to use yeast to produce THC when there is a much simpler and more efficient way to do it, by growing cannabis.

    • Otis Bright

      because marijauna is still illegal in many states, yeast is not.

      • Fake Name

        marijuana without THC is perfectly legal.

        THC is what is illegal. The USA has been producing non-thc hemp for a long time.

        • Van Snyder

          Hemp isn’t marijuana. Neither are hops. But they’re all cannabis genus species.

      • Chuck Farley

        Yeast with THC would be illegal, because THC is illegal. In certain bassackward states, that is.

        • Van Snyder

          At least in Colorado, Leviticus now makes sense.

      • Gary

        They will create legislation that will make THC producing yeast illegal to raise the profits on for profit incarceration. Just give them a little time.

    • Chuck Farley

      Because then big pharma can extract and sell it. Of course they’ll want to blend it with oxycontin (to keep ya comin back). After all, they can’t let you grow your own medicine in your closet or backyard…

    • Nate

      Because using yeast has the potential to be much more efficient and simpler than anything as energy intensive as agriculture. Imagine 1000 gallons of water. Add bag of yeast, add sugar, keep warm for a few weeks. Extract THC

    • Raygun ruined America

      big pharma, cant cash in… dea needs their billion buck budget each year to bust some guy growing a plant.

  • Stephen Green

    I have a state health department prescription for pain relief. The state run program isn’t too bad, except price. And now my state legislators are
    concerned that the cash flow wasn’t what they expected. Hopefully they won’t mess with the prices we pay now.

    • faaaaq

      Whats the price difference between shops and the street? If street prices are less than shop prices, your state might be considering lowering the shop prices to increase sales, to try to hit the revenue sweet-spot.

      • Fake Name

        Street prices are lower than store prices here in Washington. But i can’t hardly think of anyone that still buys from the street… not unless there aren’t any pot stores around. Street weed is still pretty good… but most still prefer legal outlets where they can read percentages on the labels.

  • TLongmire

    Wow 30% that’s amazing!!!!

    • Thugnificent Nuggybear TresEqu

      Living the dream in Portland, Oregon.

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    • Fake Name

      30% by dry weight. That would be an enourmous amount of yeast to get enough weight for getting full grown adults stoned. Probably easier to just grow some real weed.

      • TLongmire

        No, breeders have actually found a way to make the plants produce 30% THC, which I could only but imagine equates to some potent medicine!

        • Fake Name

          Here in washington we have that high. In the store you can get 24% on the low cost side. Pay more per gram and you get blends that have labeled over 30% THC in them.

          • TLongmire

            Well you should appreciate that then because in the state I live in any plant deemed “hallucinogenic” is illegal which is borderline tyranny.

          • Timothy Higgins

            If you can take one toke to relieve what ails you why would they make you smoke more of lesser grade when they know smoking is bad for you?

  • xcxv

    Shout out to my dogs @ Dortmund, Germany

  • Chuck Farley

    Infamous? As in the substance patented by the US government (US6630507) as a neuroprotectant and antioxidant? I’d say that’s famous, not infamous. Got some kind of agenda there, Discover?

    The government has known for *decades* of the benefits of cannabis. The cat is out of the bag now; we are all finding out about their lies. All those who have died from cancer *could have* had their chemo torture alleviated before they died. Some may have even been cured. Instead they were allowed to suffer and die. On top of the tens of thousands who had their lives ruined and their freedom removed via prison over cannabis. Absolutely criminal. I am glad so many know the real truth and are speaking out and educating others.

    End the lies and legalize!

    • Thugzbunyyy

      Very well said. Good to see there are others out there with the ability to educate themselves instead of just believing what they’re told.

    • Raygun ruined America

      15 years ago, my freind was having chemo, and really bad side effects. he never smoked cannibus ever. during a chemo cycle, we sat and had him smoke 4 tokes thru a pipe, and we could see on his face the nausea go away, color back in his face, and an hour later, he felt like eating, which is also a big prob with chemo, you dont eat. how about lsd, and mdma, helping massive ptsd, and other issues, that the gov. wont let go into larger trials?

      • James Peters

        Trials are ongoing elsewhere in the world

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      • DesertSun59

        The War on Drugs makes an obscene amount of money for a tiny group of people. That’s why the War continues.

    • Van Snyder

      The controlled substance acts were plain stupid, and maybe not constitutional. Haven’t they learned from prohibition that it just enriches and empowers criminals?

      • Natural Nurture

        Its all about money. Incarceration is a private industry. The war against drugs…is just another money making war.
        The more in jail the better it is for shareholders.
        It is simple cupidity; as most of organized crime is…even when it is government sanctioned and legal.

        ❝ In a time of universal deceit, telling the TRUTH becomes a revolutionary act. ❞ — George Orwell

      • DesertSun59

        The US gov’t is extremely aware that prohibition enriches and empowers criminals. They’re known as unregulated capitalists. That’s why we have a pay-per-criminal prison system.

    • DesertSun59

      Exactly. This article wasn’t fully vetted.

  • Pierhead

    THC potency is just one aspect of the medical qualities of cannabis – by itself it is a pale imitation of whole plant preparations. Ever tried Marinol?
    Personally I think it is a misuse of the plant to emphasize potency alone – the current interest in concentrates for the intense high only underscore the public perception that all use is abuse.

  • GeoffZoref

    I thought I had Read that chemists at Jansen were synthesing opiates like Fentanyl from Lactic Acid 40 years ago.

  • Raygun ruined America

    just another way for big pharma to cash in, when you can get help thru a plant. next, it will cost $15000 a year like that new cholesterol drug.
    big pharma=death panels.

    • Elliot

      stupid commenters = nazi squads

  • disqus_KTDPECPDqG

    This is really good news, but does this mean the genetically engineered yeast made chew-able Vic’s contain gluten? Ya know, Hydrocodone. Is the wheat taken out in the process of yeast in the factory? I’m celiac, so really curious?

    • Van Snyder

      Yeast isn’t wheat.

  • Smarter than Your Average Bear

    Hope they do the same with CBD as that’s the real healing chemical (but it doesn’t get you high)

  • Stephen Green

    I have a state medical card and am able to use cannabis made available
    here where I live. Higher CDB levels usually get me high anyway. Not the
    same as High THC levels.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    If this process can be scaled up to compete with the plant, it should save water and other resources.

    The question then is whether it will be cost competitive.

  • Courtney

    that’s all good and dandy but come on… federal government won’t legalize marijuana cause they know that the pharmaceutical companies can’t patton a plant and make money off of it. We all know money makes the world go around, sadly but true! Drives me nuts cause you can’t beat the real thing why focus on making the THC molecule when you should be focusing on making it legal and idolizing the benefits such as medical and industrial hemp we can stop cutting down our trees and save the ecosystem and habitats to precious endangered species. We can use hemp as biofuel, cloths, and paper the Declaration of Independence is wrote on hemp paper come on. It’s a reusable natural resource that the government won’t tab into because of money! They talk about crime will go up its easier for kids these days too get drugs rather then cigerattes and alcohol! The reason for this is stores have to see an id too verify you are the proper age. A drug dealer just wants the money they don’t care how old you are! Prohibition doesn’t work!! We need a control save environment too sell weed and this would eliminate the so call gate way theory, goes back too drug dealer don’t care they just want there money! When you walk into a medical marijuana dispensary your for one thing THC! So much of our tax money goes into petit simple possession charges when we should be focusing on the real criminals murders, child porn, trafficing, rapist etc. We could use they money too test 1000s of untested rap kit that’s are just sitting there because they don’t have the funds too test them! There is this thing called Internet you can’t hind the truth forever!

  • protein expression

    Thanks for sharing the information!

  • Brian Prewett

    Wonder if they can Genetically Engineer me to naturally produce THC!!

  • Timothy Higgins

    Cancer feeds on Sugar. Cannaoil has the proven track record for over 5000 years.

  • Kokopelli

    I can’t wait to try the beer made with that yeast! :-)

  • Stacie Stevens Markham

    Gonna stock up on yeast tomorrow.

  • DesertSun59

    “has shown potential to reduce the frequency of seizures in epileptic individuals.”

    No. Not potential. It actually does so. I note the reluctance to discuss this issue with full disclosure.

  • Elliot

    The gluten you refer too comes from the grains it was fed on. Please educate yourself on the disease you claim to have (I doubt you really do…).

  • Jay Evens

    Legalization has ruined the marijuana plant. Very few people actually cure their marijuana. It’s sad the black market would take the extra time and risk being caught to deliver top quality. Grow your own its only way to ensure quality! Scientific fact: Aroma’s, taste’s, and potency go up with slow cure of marijuana. Also, harshness and paranoid effects are reduced dramatically with slow curing because again scientifically proven facts. The plant continues to convert sugars and other chemical processes continue to take place that ultimately enhance all aspects the plant. Sadly however almost all marijuana in Oregon is only dried from anywhere from 5 days – 3 weeks. I wonder how they will cure this THC?

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        Diagnosed in December 2016″”Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Stage 4 but with the use of medical cannabis gotten from Dr Peter Hurt I now sleep like a baby, I feel healthy. I have energy because I’m always rested. I feel strong. I feel happy and brave. I use Cannabis Oil every night before bed. It’s my life now, because it gave me my life back for me and my family. My blood work is perfect. December 17th will be two years of being cancer-free Thanks to Dr Peter Hurt.

        • wilfredlaser

          Currently at 25 mg CBD and 12 mg THC. I am working my way up to 100 mg; 50 mg of each “My anxiety,pains and arthritis is gone Thanks to Dr Peter Hurt


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