Scientists Engineer Yeast That Opens Door to Potential Home-Brewed Heroin

By John Lavitt 08/24/15

Researchers have stopped just shy of recreating the way nature produces morphine.

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Researchers are calling for the regulation of a new technology that could make home-brewed heroin a reality.

This is the first time scientists have been able to artificially reproduce the entire chemical pathway that takes place in poppy plants to produce morphine in the wild, the Guardian reports. This could result in morphine "breweries" replacing opium poppy farms. "In principle, anyone with access to the yeast strain and basic skills in fermentation could grow morphine-producing yeast using a home-brew kit for beer making," said Tania Bubela, a public health professor at the University of Alberta in a commentary on the research.

In response, Bubela and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have called for immediate regulation of the technology. The idea of home-brewed opium—which, in theory, would be no more difficult to master than making crystal meth or brewing beer—raises the prospect of people setting up Breaking Bad-style heroin laboratories in their own homes.

“We’re certainly not aiming for the illicit drugs market, that’s for sure,” Vincent Martin, a microbiologist at Concordia University in Québec and co-author of the research, told the Guardian.

The team behind the remarkable innovation have stopped one step short of completing the research, announcing a self-imposed moratorium to allow law enforcement agencies time to catch up with the new technology. “We realized that we’re entering into a brave new territory here," said Martin. "Me and my collaborators felt that various regulatory bodies should be consulted and talked to and we should build a consensus of how to take this forward."

John Dueber, lead author and a bioengineer at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “The time is now to think about policies to address this area of research. The field is moving surprisingly fast, and we need to be out in front so that we can mitigate the potential for abuse.” Dueber predicted a timeline of a “couple of years, not a decade” for the reliable production of controlled drugs by sugar-fed yeast.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.