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Biotech Medicine

Genetically Engineered Yeast Makes It Possible To Brew Morphine 333

PvtVoid writes: The New York times reports that newly developed yeast strains will soon make it possible to create morphine from fermentation of sugar. While no one has claimed to make morphine in lab from scratch yet, concerns are already being raised about potential abuse. According to the Times article: "This rapid progress in synthetic biology has set off a debate about how — and whether — to regulate it. Dr. Oye and other experts said this week in a commentary in Nature Chemical Biology that drug-regulatory authorities are ill prepared to control a process that will benefit the heroin trade much more than the prescription painkiller industry. The world should take steps to head that off, they argue, by locking up the bioengineered yeast strains and restricting access to the DNA that would let drug cartels reproduce them.
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Genetically Engineered Yeast Makes It Possible To Brew Morphine

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  • Sudafed (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jdavidb ( 449077 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @12:55PM (#49719895) Homepage Journal

    Forget morphine - could I just get a way to simply, legally obtain sudafed without rigamarole at the pharmacy?

    • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Funny)

      by countSudoku() ( 1047544 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:04PM (#49719999) Homepage

      We KNOW what your up too, Pablo Escapebar! The cops are on their way to your drug lab to confiscate your chems, inhalers, and any other paraphernalia like shaving razor replacement packs and Q-tips. The jig is UP!

    • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Interesting)

      by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:06PM (#49720039) Homepage Journal

      Forget morphine - could I just get a way to simply, legally obtain sudafed without rigamarole at the pharmacy?

      I recall someone posted the directions for how to make sudafed from crystal meth. Being as the latter is easier to buy than the former, you could start with that. For obvious reasons I'm not going to search for that method myself.

      I don't recall if you get drain cleaner back out of it or not, though.

    • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:21PM (#49720223)

      Fun fact: the word is "rigmarole [merriam-webster.com]," not "rigamarole."

      I know nobody cares. Further evidence for this: nearly everyone gets that wrong.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by drkoemans ( 666135 )
        Slashdot needs to change it's subheading to be a bit more inclusive. News for nerds, pedantry, advertisements, occasionally stuff that matters... in that order.
    • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Insightful)

      by russotto ( 537200 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:25PM (#49720253) Journal

      Pseudoephederine is already produced from yeast.

      Of course, if it becomes cheaper to produce opiates from yeast than from current processes, trying to keep the yeasts secret or locked up will be futile. The stuff reproduces itself; all it takes is one well-bribed or entrepreneurial employee.

      • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Insightful)

        by garyisabusyguy ( 732330 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:35PM (#49720381)

        Whole new angle on home-brewing and probably a heck of a lot less obvious than a field of poppies growing on your property

        I thought that the development of coal-tar based opioid synthesis processes in the US was supposed to support the wholesale eradication of poppies and black market production of opium and heroin.

        That obviously failed because farmers want the income, so in the EU they allow farmers to grow poppies, then purchase the entire crop in bulk for use in their pharmaceutical processes. This allows the farmers to get the income and reduces the opiates in the black market

        When will the US stop deluding itself and simply purchase bulk poppies from farmers in Central and South America who simply want a source of income? This will reduce the number of people who trade in the black market and reduce the opium available for heroin production

        • When will the US stop deluding itself and simply purchase bulk poppies from farmers in Central and South America who simply want a source of income? This will reduce the number of people who trade in the black market and reduce the opium available for heroin production

          Because then the CIA would have no source of 'black' income and means to bribe officials/governments with...

      • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:35PM (#49720395)

        all it takes is one well-bribed or entrepreneurial employee.

        Or one employee that believes in personal freedom, and also realizes that yeast produced opiates will shut down the cartels, hurt the Taliban, reduce violence, and pretty much make the world a better place ... unless you are either a criminal or a cop.

        • by flink ( 18449 )

          Or one employee that believes in personal freedom, and also realizes that yeast produced opiates will shut down the cartels, hurt the Taliban, reduce violence, and pretty much make the world a better place ... unless you are either a criminal or a cop.

          Unless, of course, the government goes on a pogrom against any large scale yeast operation, in which case only organizations with the resources to operate one illicitly will be able to benefit: the cartels and the Taliban.

          • Or one employee that believes in personal freedom, and also realizes that yeast produced opiates will shut down the cartels, hurt the Taliban, reduce violence, and pretty much make the world a better place ... unless you are either a criminal or a cop.

            Unless, of course, the government goes on a pogrom against any large scale yeast operation, in which case only organizations with the resources to operate one illicitly will be able to benefit: the cartels and the Taliban.

            Oh the humanity, Budweiser and Miller breweries shut down by the feds.

            • by tepples ( 727027 )

              Oh the humanity, Budweiser and Miller breweries shut down by the feds.

              It happened a century ago.

            • Re: Sudafed (Score:5, Funny)

              by guruevi ( 827432 ) <<eb.ebucgnikoms> <ta> <ive>> on Monday May 18, 2015 @03:28PM (#49721471) Homepage

              Budweiser/Miller make beer? With yeast? I always thought they made it with water flavored with leftover hops from a real brewery.

          • Unless, of course, the government goes on a pogrom against any large scale yeast operation, in which case only organizations with the resources to operate one illicitly will be able to benefit: the cartels and the Taliban.

            The only "resources" needed to grow yeast are a container, a loose fitting lid, and some way to keep it warm (a bowl of warm water works well). I know this because I make my own pizza dough.

            • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Insightful)

              by meerling ( 1487879 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @03:19PM (#49721419)
              True, but for a large scale operation you are going to want to have a bioreactor for both efficiency and scale, not to mention reducing the dead giveaway large quantity of people to tend the more manual methods.
              Further complication include issues with production of the new substance possibly interfering with the lifecycle of the host itself. (That's the yeast if anyone didn't get that.) And let's not forget the separation and purification of the desired product.
              You do know that they use microbes to make a number of different things, such as human insulin and interferon? Just look up some of the history of those developments, and you'll get a hint of some possible difficulties. Besides, there was a market for large quantities of cheap human insulin & interferon, while the previous methods of production were horribly inefficient and could never even come close to the demand.
              I'm going to hazard a guess that the criminal cartels would be opposed to this technology because it would be more expensive to the them to set up, would require workers of a higher skill & training, would cut out entire chunks of their existing structure, and would be easily capable of flooding the market and suppressing prices.
              Besides, other than banning the opiate producing strain, which only takes one leak to effectively neutralize that ban, what are you going to do? Ban genetically altered strains of microbes, and tobacco? Sorry, but I'd rather shoot the asshole that tries to do that, my life depends on one of those products, and so do a LOT of other peoples. Maybe you just want to ban the research into making illegal products. That would be a little better, but still futile. Eventually it will be easy enough to do that a talented high school student will someday succeed. Additionally, if it's not banned worldwide, someone will eventually do it someplace it's not illegal, and then there is the distinct possibility that it will get loose.
              Of course, there is still something people are not looking at, their strain produces morphine, a controlled, but legal, substance. Yeah, it can be turned into heroin, but so can all the legal morphine which is usually made from FLOWERS that people grow! It's used in medicine. I was once in a hospital ward and I was the only patient not receiving morphine. (The reason for that doesn't matter.) So there IS a legal trade in the product produced by that yeast, but because it can be used to make an illegal one, some people want to ban it. You know, that's not a wise path to tread upon. If something can be banned because something illegal can be made from/with it, how long until everything is banned? You know politicians, give them an inch, and they'll run you over with your own vehicle and drag you a mile down the road.
          • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Interesting)

            by FictionPimp ( 712802 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @02:25PM (#49720935) Homepage

            Or worse, this shit becomes like wild yeast and the next time I brew beer I have to worry about creating a drink full of dope instead of just worrying a wild fermentation might just make it taste bad.

            • and the next time I brew beer I have to worry about creating a drink full of dope

              You mean you accidentally brew super beer

              • Next Australians will be stopped at airport security for smuggling.

                Security Goon: "We detected a suspicious dark slurry in your luggage"
                Bloke: "Strewth mate, I'm not stupid enough to bring drugs into a country, with the tragic deaths of Chan and Sukumaran..."
                SG: "The canister gave off a salty odour. We fed a sample to our narcotics canine Charlie, who is now convulsing on the floor"
                Bloke: "Sorry um that's just my Vegemite. I have it on toast for breakfast"
                SG: "You eat that stuff? Surely not!"
                Bloke: "Honest

              • by Khyber ( 864651 )

                Actually it would probably be considered closer to laudanum than beer.

        • We had this "better world" 130ish years ago. It was not better, addicts were becoming a huge problem for the society - the actual reason drugs became illegal. And yes, there still was a war in Afghanistan.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by dj245 ( 732906 )

            We had this "better world" 130ish years ago. It was not better, addicts were becoming a huge problem for the society - the actual reason drugs became illegal. And yes, there still was a war in Afghanistan.

            Yes, but 130 years ago we were still in an "all hands on deck" global economy. We now have the ability to produce all the things that the world needs or wants with far less than 100% of the population. The global economy no longer needs a significant portion of the population to participate in the economy. How do you solve that? Having a class of people who do nothing but drugs all day long may actually be somewhat helpful in solving the problem of what to do with all the people that society doesn't ne

          • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Anon-Admin ( 443764 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @02:17PM (#49720863) Homepage Journal

            Someone should read history.

            Drug laws in the US are less than 100 years old. It was the late 1930's for most of them. I would suggest you read the arguments in congress while debating the law. It seems that the group FOR the law was arguing that these substances empowered the lesser races. (Im making it polite and not using the slang they used)

            Drug laws in the US had more to due with racial control than they did with helping the addicts.

            Just to make a point stoners are considered "lazy, irresponsible, thieves, untrustworthy, etc" All the same stereotypes used to describe blacks in the 30's, 40's, and 50's.

            • Re:Sudafed (Score:5, Interesting)

              by swb ( 14022 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @03:01PM (#49721279)

              The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed in 1914, but the impetus started closer to 1901.

              While it's a common theme in anti-drug control rhetoric to blame racism for drug bans, I think the race/drug tie-in is possibly something that happened later and not a prime mover for the origin of drug controls. I think once drugs were already illegal, the laws were adjusted in ways that made them more effective tools to use against people deemed undesirable.

              Personally I think the laws against drug use were probably at least as much motivated by industrialists who saw drug use as an obstacle in using low-skilled poor people in the new mass-production factories. Prior to the assembly line, I think a fair amount of industrial work was little more than scaling up the work of skilled artisans, people who probably had internalized a certain amount of self-discipline and work ethic. They were probably also drunks, too, but by virtue of their holding a skilled trade they were sort of self-selected into the group of people who could more or less hold their liquor.

              Once you got the assembly line and mass production involved, the growth in industrial employment required large workforces of unskilled workers from the lower classes of society, a demographic at the time that came from cultures where alcohol use was high and who probably used drugs and alcohol more like a crude anti-depressant tonic against the fairly harsh standard of living of being poor in the late 19th century.

              But you can't build an industrial empire with people who see a subsistence living under the influence as more desirable than industrial wage slavery, so better to criminalize their substance use and make work a slightly more palatable option than prison.

              It was really no different for the Harrison Act -- the impetus was some Protestant religious figure appalled with opium-consuming native savages in the Philippines who knew that he wasn't going to convert them into good little Protestants if chasing the dragon and lying in the sun was an alternative.

              I think a lot of the opposition to marijuana legalization really boils down to this -- a lot of moral cluckers who worry that if Johnny smokes pot, he won't be enthusiastic about going $150.000 in debt for a college degree and buying a house in the suburbs -- he'll think that it'd make much more sense to, in the words of Grandmaster Flash, "...learn to smoke reefer and be a street sweeper."

              Society *needs* bodies on the treadmill to keep it going. People who use substances tend to give a lot less of a shit about the treadmill.

              • all you have to do is read the propaganda at the time and watch the videos of the day to see that it was in fact racist at the time watch reefer madness if you dont believe me
              • Re:Sudafed (Score:4, Interesting)

                by rea1l1 ( 903073 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @03:28PM (#49721477) Journal

                The US was founded as a republic, a structure designed solely to protect & defend the rights of the people.
                Today, this organization is used to limit and suppress the rights of the people through intimidation and force.

                Society does NOT need bodies on a treadmill unless you're using society as a massive global offensive weapon.
                Most working individuals within a "modern" society DO NOT PRODUCE A PHYSICAL PRODUCT.

                "We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living." -- Buckminster Fuller

  • by harvey the nerd ( 582806 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @12:59PM (#49719929)
    ...in other news, so many Taliban are going to divorce their 3rd and 4th wives due to low opium sales.
  • by amorsen ( 7485 ) <benny+slashdot@amorsen.dk> on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:00PM (#49719953)

    If we eliminated the need to grow opium, a some countries would find their economies transformed. Imagine Afghanistan without opium financing various criminal factions. We just need to figure out how to make cocaine without coca, and Middle America would be changed too.

    Of course that relies on the secret getting out. Otherwise we are still stuck with the morass of violent crime.

    • by garyisabusyguy ( 732330 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:42PM (#49720493)

      We already did eliminate the need to grow opium and all opioids used in American pharmaceuticals come from a coal-tar process.

      This was supposed to bring about the end of illegal opium and heroin, but has not had the effect because it is very hard to get people to stop growing a plant that they can get paid lots of money for.

      Countries like Hungary allow farmers to grow a limited amount of poppies, which are purchased for use in the European pharma industry. This allows the farmers to make money and keeps it from becoming heroin

      There is no reason to believe that creating new ways to synthesize opioids will reduce the growing of poppies

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:01PM (#49719957)

    I think its inevitable that the drug cartels will find a way to get this. The answer to the drug problem is legalisation and regulation, treat addiction as the disease it is!

    • I think its inevitable that the drug cartels will find a way to get this.

      When this gets out, the cartels will be out of business. No one has a greater interest in keeping these yeast locked up.

      The answer to the drug problem is legalisation and regulation

      That would also put the cartels out of business.

    • If, by drug cartels, you mean Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis, then yes, they will find a way to get this.

  • Reshape prohibition (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ed Tice ( 3732157 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:03PM (#49719975)
    Hopefully this reshapes our modern prohibition. Whether or not laws change, this stuff will now be manufactured in small facilities. No need to control large swaths of land. The opium farmers will go from terrorized to abandoned. Don't know whether that will be good for them or not. No more smuggling loads around the world. Just import some bacteria and start producing. Should increase competition in the market, too, and drive the price down. Less lucrative to control the inner city distribution points so those areas will go from terrorized to abandoned too. Should be interesting to see this unfold. I hope for the best.
  • The world should take steps to head that off, they argue, by locking up the bioengineered yeast strains and restricting access to the DNA that would let drug cartels reproduce them

    How would they restrict them to something that someone with enough money couldn't buy their way around? Being as the drug cartels have no shortage of money, it seems like a pointless move.

    • by Jeremi ( 14640 )

      How would they restrict them to something that someone with enough money couldn't buy their way around?

      Now that it's known to be possible, the drug cartels don't even need to buy or steal the recipe. If necessary, they could just hire some genetic engineers to independently re-discover how to do it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:06PM (#49720021)

    But they can prevent even a few spores from getting into the hands of the cartels.
    Truthfully it would be the cartels who would fight a desperate drug war to keep this production democratizing yeast out of the hands of home brew street dealers and junkies killing off their trillion dollar middleman industry and their other side of the drug war profits with it.
    This is dangerous as it would take all of the violence and money form the heroin trade.

  • Fan-tastic! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:06PM (#49720035) Journal
    Now buying homebrewing gear will join buying hydroponic gardening equipment on the list of 'completely legal things most likely to cause the DEA to batter down your door and shoot your dog.'

    That'll be fun.
  • by grasshoppa ( 657393 ) <skennedy.tpno-co@org> on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:12PM (#49720111) Homepage

    I'm not sure how they hope to contain such a yeast strain. Sure, they can lock it up *now*, but for how long will that last? It'll only take a single corrupt employee, or group of employees, being offered more money than they could ever hope to make in several lifetimes. Then it's out in the wild. Unless they plan on building in some kind of critical vulnerability in the strain, any home brewer can replicate the yeast with ease. Even if they do build in a critical vulnerability, it'll be an "addon" and thus, possible to disable.

    I foresee another "War on Drugs" coming, where the objective in unobtainable. Fortunately after the first round of funding, the objective becomes irrelevant ( of course, the cynic in me is YELLING that the objective IS the funding..but I digress ).

    • "any home brewer can replicate the yeast with ease." I wouldn't be so sure of that. If this yeast is slow to replicate compared to wild yeast strains that float around in the air, it may be quite difficult to keep your strain from getting outcompeted by other strains unless you have a cleanroom facility at home.
  • by Rhacman ( 1528815 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:18PM (#49720185)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]

    "Auto-brewery syndrome, also known as gut fermentation syndrome, is a rare medical condition in which intoxicating quantities of ethanol are produced through endogenous fermentation within the digestive system."

    Now imagine this with a yeast that produces morphine...
  • by bistromath007 ( 1253428 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:26PM (#49720277)
    Let's just make opiates the opiate of the masses. They're way more effective than what we've been using instead.
  • Destroy the cartels (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ChrisMaple ( 607946 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:29PM (#49720307)
    Easy home brewing of mind-degrading drugs is the drug cartels' worst nightmare. Cartels disappear almost overnight as US citizens can brew drugs at far below the cartel cost of production.
  • by newcastlejon ( 1483695 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:30PM (#49720331)
    The genome will be on pastebin faster than you can say "DeCSS".
  • If it works out and is economical compared to the old methods (and that's a heck of a big "if"):

    There are a lot of illegal opium poppy growing operations that would have to drop their prices, use other means (killing those running brewing operations) or go out of business.

    I can't say I'll shed many tears for some of the leaders of those groups.

  • by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:32PM (#49720353)

    At this point, anyone who uses hard drugs in the US is doing so after years of being told all of the nasty things they do to your body. There's no curing that level of stupid. There's a percentage of the population that in the absence of morphine, will abuse bath salts and model glue. No law can fix that complete lack of long term thinking.

  • There's already a drug with many harmful effects that is widely abused, that was legally (as in, the Constitution was modified) banned, and is made by yeast.

  • by pla ( 258480 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:39PM (#49720435) Journal
    and restricting access to the DNA that would let drug cartels reproduce them

    One problem there - Humans contain the DNA for producing morphine. It works so well precisely because out body already uses it to regulate our natural pain response.
  • Given the amount of sense I've come to expect from regulators, I'm sure sugar is about to become a controlled substance...

  • I'm honestly surprised it has taken this long for drugs to be made this way. Well, not that many aren't already, but ones that the average person would be interested in making, that is... really anything that isn't toxic to yeast ought to be doable.
  • by burni2 ( 1643061 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @02:09PM (#49720779)

    You want yeast DNA?

    Lick your hand.
    Lick your feet.
    Lick your *beep*.

    And the best thing D.N.A. is a puzzle, but a very logical one.

    When you have watched bio engineering students doing their *basic* experiments with basic yeast you will be astonished what they can achieve by just playing around.

    DNA is a perfect self assembling puzzle you will quickly see how things work out.

    Basically what I want to lay out is that there is not just even the slightest chance of succeeding to conceal that information from drug makers, because they will find out otherwise because in DNA if it works .. you can redo steps or start variations and your own research.

    So yes, the cartels will find a way and hey .. they won the war on drugs haven't they?

    Also in case genetic engineering is too complex there is still Afghanistan.

    1.) So you have many (and I mean many) "underpaid" bio engineering students.

    2.) Decent equipment makes everything easier, but you can built that equipment, that knowledge cannot be subdued(it's too widespread)

    3.) You have "fungus"(yeast) DNA everywhere

    4.) Variations - If you want to find an unknown strain .. go to a brothel, public toilet, the more cultures clash .. the more variations you will find in one spot.

    5.) you have scientific journals (and you also have a black list of crap journals)

    6.) Money = Resources (Hey we are talking here about drug cartels that have no problem to just loose cocain worth being 200 mUSD)

    7.) We have a black pharma market that produces counterfight - and at a 50% chance high quality - drugs for old mens problems from industrial scale made basic chemicals. And nobody can stop them - or wants to.

  • I can see the Super Bowl commercials now. It'll be like that Farley/Sandler bit on SNL, except the gays will be substituted with heroin models.
  • by Ranbot ( 2648297 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @05:20PM (#49722191)

    No self-respecting drug addict would use franken-morphine!

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