Scientists use beer yeast to ‘brew’ cannabinoids

Scientists at the University of California in Berkeley have developed a method of brewing genetically-modified cannabis using beer yeast, hailing a cheaper and more environmentally-friendly method of producing the cannabinoids for both medical and recreational applications.

Researchers have found a way of synthesising cannabinoids from brewer’s yeast, without having to cultivate a plant, offering a more cost effective and environmentally friendly method of obtaining CBD and THC.

Researchers say they have found a way of using brewer’s yeast to produce low-cost and high-quality cannabinoids – mind-altering THC and non-psychoactive CBD – which could aid in the creation of more medical, and recreational, uses for cannabis.

Feeding only on sugar, the yeast are an easy and cheap way to produce pure cannabinoids that are typically costly to extract from the buds of the marijuana plant.

“For the consumer, the benefits are high-quality, low-cost CBD and THC: you get exactly what you want from yeast,” said Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of bioengineering and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“It is a safer, more environmentally friendly way to produce cannabinoids.”

To produce cannabinoids, researchers essentially feed sugar to genetically engineered yeast to produce THC, CBD and other cannabinoids normally produced only by marijuana plants.

Explaining further, the team said: “Turning yeast into chemical factories involves co-opting their metabolism so that, instead of turning sugar into alcohol, for example, yeast convert sugar into other chemicals that are then modified by added enzymes to produce a new product, such as THC, that the yeast secrete into the liquid surrounding them. The researchers ended up inserting more than a dozen genes into yeast, many of them copies of genes used by the marijuana plant to synthesize cannabinoids.”

While the applications of this research are aimed initially at medical purposes, it’s logical that they could be used across other segments of the market, including drinks companies, to make CBD or THC-infused beverages.

DRINKS MOVING IN ON CANNABIS MARKET

In the US, 10 states have already legalised the use of cannabis, including Michigan, Oklahoma, Vermont, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington DC, and represents a multibillion-dollar business.

Constellation acquired a 9.9% share in Canopy Growth, Canada’s biggest traded cannabis firm, for  £141 million (US$179m) in October, back when, according to the Wall Street Journal, Canopy Growth had a market value of £1.3 billion (US$1.6bn). It has since said that it plans to invest a further US$4 billion, to acquire a 38% share of the business.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola is reportedly in talks with Canadian cannabis producer Aurora to develop drinks infused with CBD, and UK-based Diageo is developing three different Canadian cannabis producers with the view to developing its own line of CBD-infused drinks.

A sparkling wine infused with the drug is also in development. According to Forbes, Californian cannabis-focused agriculture company Terra Tech, which has linked up with Washington-based cannabis drinks maker Valiente to produce a non-alcoholic sparkling wine infused with cannabis called ‘IVXX’.

Brewers are also making moves on the cannabis drinks market. Molson Coors has embarked on a joint venture with Quebec’s Hexo’s Corp to develop a range of cannabis drinks in Canada, while Heineken’s Lagunitas label has launched a brand specialising in non-alcoholic drinks infused with THC, marijuana’s active ingredient.

In Euromonitor’s 2019 “Here Comes Cannabis” report, Spiros Malandrakis, Euromonitor’s industry manager for alcoholic drinks, said: “Cannabis will ultimately culminate a global paradigm shift that will radically disrupt traditionalist industries such as alcoholic drinks.

“Reshaping millennia-old drinking rituals and providing an alternative to social lubrication occasions, cannabis should be either embraced as a symbiotic opportunity or faced as a potentially detrimental antagonist for an alcohol industry already on the defensive.”

MEDICAL APPLICATIONS

Medications containing THC have already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to reduce nausea after chemotherapy and to improve appetite in AIDS patients, while CBD, or cannabidiol, is used increasingly in cosmetics and as a treatment for childhood epileptic seizures. It is also being investigated as a therapy for numerous conditions, including anxiety, Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain.

However medical research on the more than 100 other chemicals in marijuana has been difficult, researchers say, because “the chemicals occur in tiny quantities, making them hard to extract from the plant. Inexpensive, purer sources – like yeast – could make such studies easier”.

This could be a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to produce desirable cannabis properties, without having to cultivate a plant, which is an “energy-intensive and environmentally-destructive industry”, that often brings with it the use of pesticides and fertilizer, and a higher demand for water. 

Using artificial lighting systems, one study estimated that California’s indoor cannabis industry accounts for 3% of the state’s electricity usage, which can add more than $1,000 to the price of a pound of weed, a press release from the University of California states, hence Keasling’s interest in finding a “green” way to produce the active chemicals in marijuana.

“It was an interesting scientific challenge,” he said. “But when you read about cases of patients who have seizures and are helped by CBD, especially children, you realize there is some value in these molecules, and that producing cannabinoids in yeast could really be great.”

The research will be published in the scientific journal, Nature.

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