As marijuana becomes increasingly mainstream — the legal cannabis market is estimated to reach $166 billion by 2025 — the potential for cannabis to change numerous industries from health to food is great. The future of cannabis may feature production facilities that have more in common with a craft beer brewery than a grow house — and leave out the plant altogether.
In a paper published today in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, biochemists at the University of California, Berkeley report what some cannabis industry experts are describing as a breakthrough in biosynthetic cannabinoid production. By using genetically modified yeast, the Berkeley scientists were able to convert simple sugars into the active chemical compounds in marijuana: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The scientists made THC and CBD — the chemicals that get users high and which have supposed medical benefits — without the marijuana plant.
The research could help make these compounds — which are produced in relatively low quantities by the plant — much cheaper and more widely available for medicinal and recreational use, potentially bypassing some of the common constraints for the traditional marijuana market, including sky-high energy needs and a complex, ever-shifting legal landscape.
“It’s an idea that many companies have been working on, but I’ve never seen anything so thorough,” says Daniele Piomelli, director of the University of California, Irvine’s Institute for the Study of Cannabis, who was not involved in the research. “It appears like a very substantial step forward.”
Over the last few years, biosynthesis — the process of producing complex molecules within living cells — has quietly gained ground as a way to satisfy the booming demand for nonsmokable cannabinoid products, like THC-laced snacks and CBD-infused oils. A handful of American and Canadian companies have begun to file patent applications for cannabinoid-producing yeast, E. coli, and other easily-manipulated microorganisms, usually keeping their research a secret to maintain their business advantage.