Scientists have developed genetically modified yeast bacteria that will be able to turn sugar into opiates.
A dramatic shift in this opium production will probably take place in the next five years if researchers have their way. Scientists from UC Berkeley and Concordia University are nearly done developing a process to genetically modify yeast bacteria to produce morphine, codeine, and other opiates.
For years, scientists have been trying to isolate the opiate producing genes of the opium poppy to place the genes in bacteria — and they are making major headway.
According to Nature.com:
“Now, published papers by these researchers — John Dueber at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues1, and Vincent Martin of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and his colleagues2 — describe all but one step of an engineered yeast pathway that converts glucose to morphine (see ‘Brewing bad’). Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Calgary have put in place the final piece3.”
(For an in-depth look at how this yeast was developed, see this post on sciencemag.org.)
This newly developed opiate yeast draws concerns over the widespread abuse of opiates, heroin addiction, monopolization and abuse of the technology itself, among other factors. It’s unclear who will specifically hold this technology — outside of the scientists who developed it — when it’s finished.
According to an article from ScienceMag.org, scientists believe the answer to avoiding abuse of opiate yeast is voluntarily reporting suspicious requests for the DNA altered bacteria. Essentially, scientists naively believe that pharmaceutical companies will be able to maintain a monopoly on opiate producing bacteria, claiming,
“Companies that now synthesize and distribute long stretches of DNA should consider carefully reviewing requests for the genes that code for key drugmaking components, and block suspicious requests. Such companies already undertake a similar process for gene sequences involved in microbes that could be used as bioweapons, and voluntarily report requests for such genes to law enforcement agencies.”
That doesn’t sound like a very long lasting or effective solution. There is a very good chance that this opium-producing bacteria will escape the lab (LSD anyone?) where it will be forever placed into the hands of drug profiteers around the world.
Throughout history, wars have been waged for opium procurement and/or with opium as a weapon, destroying countries from the inside out. Some believe it’s even happening right now with US guarded Afghan opium flooding Russia and Ukraine. Therefore, the development of this bacteria could have major geopolitical impacts besides the many health concerns.
It’s a truly frightening concept to think about: “legal” and “illegal” drug dealers being able to produce opiates on demand with little more than a bacteria culture, Pyrex beakers, a few cups of sugar, and a little expertise in biology.
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