Now We Don’t Need Poppies: Scientists Create Opiates In A Lab

By hacking DNA, researchers are turning baker’s yeast into opioid-making machines.

Now We Don’t Need Poppies: Scientists Create Opiates In A Lab
[Top photo: Flickr user Alastair Rae]

Opium, the compound responsible for medications like oxycodone and morphine, is derived from the poppy plant (a not quite as magical version of the poppy seen in the Wizard of Oz’s deadly poppy field). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this growing process, but poppy farming is only legal in a handful of countries–a measure taken to ensure that opium isn’t refined into heroine.


Now, scientists have figured out how to create opiates in a vat instead, using a variation on the beer brewing process.

Flickr user Laughlin Elkind

The U.S. has the biggest legal opiate market in the world, but there is very little legal poppy farming, As a result, the U.S. is dependent on other nations to produce opium, which can then be refined into painkillers.

In a paper in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, researchers at Stanford University detail their work hacking yeast DNA to make opiates. Their ultimate goal: producing opioid-based medicine entirely inside fermentation vats, no external supply chain required.

There are, according to a Stanford press release, 17 chemical steps involved in making opioid compounds found in medication, some naturally occurring and some that require factories. The researchers, led by bionengineering professor Christina Smolke, want to concentrate all of those steps so that they happen inside yeast cells. In their paper, they describe how they have hacked the yeast genome to produce opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Specifically, Smolke and her team took thebaine, an opiate from poppies, put it into yeast that was hacked to include genes from a bacterium that eats dead poppy stalks, and ended up with refined opioids. The researchers can generate codeine, morphine, hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone.

They write: “Opiates and related molecules are medically essential, but their production via field cultivation of opium poppy Papaver somniferum leads to supply inefficiencies and insecurity. As an alternative production strategy, we developed baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a microbial host for the transformation of opiates.”

There’s still more work required before opioids can be completely produced for patients inside vats, however–Smolke expects it will take years to perfect the bioengineered yeast so that it can turn sugar into thebaine at the beginning of the opioid production process. Once that happens, opiates will become cheaper and more efficient to produce than ever before.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.