In a recent paper published in the journal Biotechnology Letters, biochemists at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany announced their success in using a genetically engineered strain of yeast to synthesize tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main component in marijuana. The feat could possibly help improve the lives of countless people by offering a cheap and reliable source of medical THC.

In a soon-to-be-released study, the team plans to publish data explaining exactly how they were able to create a cannabidiol-producing yeast strain. Marijuana is increasingly being recognized for its medicinal purposes and a synthesized version of THC is currently available in a pill form to treat nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite following cancer treatment for patients with AIDS, The New York Times reported. The ability to synthesize THC from yeast would provide health professionals with a more cost-efficient and consistent supply of THC for medicinal purposes and would give researchers the means to better understand other potential clinical uses of cannabis compounds.

“This is something that could literally change the lives of millions of people,” Kevin Chen, the chief executive of Hyasynth Bio, a company working to create yeasts that produce THC and cannabidiol, another marijuana compound of medicinal interest, told The Times.

Being able to make THC with yeast would eliminate having to grow marijuana plants and would also minimize the potential for illegal farming — current concerns of many government officials. At the moment, however, there is no better source of THC than actual marijuana plants. In particular, there is one strain of marijuana that has been carefully bred to become "essentially the Ferrari of the plant world," Dr. Jonathan Page, a professor who helped with sequencing efforts of the new yeast strain, told The Times. "Cannabis is hard to beat."

THC is not the only drug that researchers are working to synthesize using yeast. In May, a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley released their progress on efforts to synthesize opioid painkillers using a genetically engineered yeast. The Berkeley team believes that the ability to synthesize opioids would allow them to fine-tune the pain medications to make them not only more effective but also safer. However, some worry that the ability to synthesize opiates would lead to “home-brewed” drugs.

“An additional concern is that once the knowledge of how to create an opiate-producing strain is out there, anyone trained in basic molecular biology could theoretically build it,” explained John Dueber, a researcher involved in the project, as reported by Wired.

As of now, researchers are only able to produce small amounts of THC using their genetically modified yeast, but Newser reported that the team is working on boosting the production.

Source: Zirpel B, Stehle F, Kayser O. Production of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid from cannabigerolic acid by whole cells of Pichia (Komagataella) pastorisexpressing Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid synthase from Cannabis sativa l. Biological Letters. 2015.