The powerful painkiller morphine comes from opium poppies, which only grow in a few places around the world. But now, a group of bioengineers are on the cusp of creating a modified form of baker's yeast that can synthesize the drug. What happens when we can brew up heroin in a vat of yeast?
Photo of a yeast library by Matt S. (no, this isn't the modified yeast).
For one thing, drug manufacturing would look a lot less like a meth lab and a lot more like a brewery. Cops looking to bust a future Heisenberg from Breaking Bad wouldn't be searching for suspiciously large orders of chemicals. Instead, they'd comb medical supply databases to find out who was ordering chunks of relevant DNA and the equipment required to splice those chunks into another organism. Drug makers — licit and illicit — would extract the molecular machinery that allows poppies to create narcotics and transfer it into yeast.
To produce new molecules, pharmaceutical geeks would be modifying bacteria, altering their metabolic systems to absorb sugars and release chemicals that could be made into drugs. And this goes for all drugs, not just morphine. Yeast might one day produce cannabinoids for a marijuana-like high. A less-altered form of that yeast would make your pot-spiked cakes rise into fluffy goodness.
Maybe this development means you'd stop seeing meth labs explode. Instead, the dealer's disaster would be a punctured tank which sends its yeasty contents all over the floor, cascading in a proto-narcotic waterfall into the apartments or basement below. Of course, if you wanted to get the really good shit, you'd need to know a cool synthetic biologist willing to share her recipes. The next Timothy Leary might be a bioengineer.
But we can think bigger about what it means to turn vats of yeast into chemical factories. Whole industries might be changed. What happens to the opium farmers in Tasmania and Turkey, whose livelihoods have been deleted by microorganisms? And what happens when we modify other bacteria, and even viruses, to extrude chemicals needed for industrial processing? Does Monsanto buy out Dow and become Monsandow? (Has a ring to it, right?)
Actually it's more likely that using yeast to manufacture chemicals could change the way we think about Monsanto's business. By turning GMOs into factories instead of products, yeast hackers escape the stigma of GMOs. The products of modified yeast are chemically identical to what's found in nature, so they aren't technically GMOs and don't have to be labeled as such.
As chemical biologist Luc Henry explains at The Conversation:
Engineered yeast has a significant advantage over crops or their genetically modified copies. Not only does it not require any land, but also the final products, such as Evolva's vanillin, are chemically identical to the one isolated from natural sources and do not need to be labelled as "GM". Finally, microbial factories are contained in reactors, effectively removing the risk of environmental contamination that open-field genetically modified cultures represent.
Factory farms might be replaced by huge warehouses that look like massive beer breweries, full of shiny silver vats connected to webs of pipes.
In the future, when you catch a whiff of freshly-baked bread, you won't know if you're smelling an oven full of delicious rolls — or a new batch of painkillers.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9. She's the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter, or email her.