When you think of what yeast can do, your mind probably goes to bread or beer. But in a paper published today in Nature, scientists from UC Berkeley announced that they had successfully created the chemical compounds in marijuana — both THC and CBD — from bioengineered microscopic fungi. AKA yeast. (H/t Quartz.)
To do this, the team of scientists extracted THC and CBD genes from cannabis, then implanted them in yeast (specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same yeast used to brew beer and wine). When the yeast is put into a liquid solution with the sugar galactose and other nutrients it outputs the chemical compounds in marijuana.
Basically, scientists can now grow cannabidiol (CBD) in a lab.
There are a few benefits to this. According to Quartz, producing THC and CBD via genetically engineered yeast is cheaper than extracting the chemicals from hemp or cannabis plants (over 99 percent cheaper, in fact). That means that companies purchasing these chemical compounds to make, say, CBD-infused soda, can pass those savings onto consumers. While CBD products aren’t astronomically expensive right now — a twelve-pack of that CBD soda will set you back fifty bucks — but if they want to reach a larger audience, a cheaper price tag can’t hurt.
Secondly, using this technology scientists can create new cannabinoids, ones that could be tweaked to have specific effects (e.g., high levels of relaxation). Finally, creating THC and CBD in a lab could reduce the surprisingly high environmental footprint of cannabis crop cultivation, both indoors and outdoors. However, as with cultured meat, there is a counter-argument that keeping the lab running requires a level of energy tantamount to just producing the crop the old fashioned way.
Bioengineered yeast is opening doors for scientists to grow all sorts of food ingredients in labs. Perfect Day is using yeast to produce dairy-free milk. Impossible Foods uses genetically engineered yeast to make heme, the molecule that makes their burgers ‘bloody.’ And earlier this week, new company Motif Ingredients launched (with a cool $90 million in funding) to use yeast to create proteins to replace animal products.
This innovation is coming along at an exciting time for CBD. After the passage of the Farm Bill in late 2018 made hemp-derived CBD legal in the U.S., analysts (ourselves included) began predicting that 2019 would be the year of CBD. It’s unclear if CBD derived from genetically engineered yeast — as opposed to hemp — will be legal, and regulators probably won’t tackle that can of worms for a while.
This news got me thinking. I wonder if we’ll see major cannabis and hemp companies pushing back against CBD made in a lab, much as we’ve seen big meat producers take issue with cell-based meat calling itself “meat.”
More immediately, this sort of research could help shed more light on the properties of CBD and maybe even accelerate the process for the FDA to decide if cannabidiol is a food-safe ingredient.