Make-Your-Own Heroin Is Almost Here,
A new study shows how to turn ordinary brewers yeast into a biological factory for producing opiates. Some scientists want to use this technology to make better painkillers. But other researchers — and the FBI — warn that this could lead to people brewing heroin at home.
Making opiates is a long and laborious process that starts in the arid poppy fields of the Middle East. But a new method could one day allow “home brewers” to make the drugs just about anywhere, with not much more than a jar of specialized yeast.
With the tricks of genetic engineering, scientists have figured out how to turn ordinary brewers yeast into a fermentation machine that could transform sugar into our most widely prescribed painkillers, not to mention heroin. Scientists have long been working on this complex chemical process, and a crucial missing piece was published Monday in Nature Chemical Biology.
It’s the first example of a genetically engineered organism producing a narcotic, and the scientific community is split over what to think about the technology’s implications. The current method would make opiates in tiny quantities, too small to be useful for any purpose. But in two or three years, some scientists warn, this research could allow anyone with access to the special yeast strain — or the genetic know-how to make it — to cook up opiates from home.
“Things are moving really fast right now,” Kenneth Oye, a professor of political science and engineering systems at MIT, revealed. “It’s not like tomorrow someone’s going to have a fully integrated, one-pot pathway to go from sugar to morphine,” Oye said. “But it’s coming.”