Scientists from University of California Berkeley recently succeeded in developing a yeast strain that can convert sugar to opiate. This genetically modified yeast tackles steps in the fundamental pathway. This yeast also carries a potential to make S-reticuline, building block for morphine, and in turn, it could be developed to make heroin, as well as other types of drugs. This would mean that in the future, anyone could become a drug cartel in his private house.
It is mentioned that this technology will have traumatic effect on black market. With supply variability reduced and price falling, drug traffickers would probably be very upset, However what’s exciting for them is, rather than engaging in dangerous poppy plant trafficking from a foreign country, they can now make opium under their own rooftop. In addition, experts of biological backgrounds have raised concerns over this type of “back-yard brewing” technology, as well as recommendation to the public sector that regulations of this yeast strain have to be studied and outlined early.
Opium traditionally is harvested from poppy, a flowering plant that is banned now in most countries except India, Turkey and Australia. Demand for opium from these legal sources come from pharmaceutics industries to manufacture medicinal drugs such as narcotics, while illegal trade often targets more lucrative heroin, which is easily produced by adding two acetyl groups to a morphine molecule. Drug trafficking has stirred up much of the social and political unrest in countries like Afghanistan and Colombia. In many cases, it has led to formation of military groups taking control of strategic production areas against the civil government, and the result of this, is often bloodshed. Problems on corruption, crimes and extremely low human development index (HDI) can be somewhat blamed on drug cartels in those countries. Thus I agree with what the professor from MIT said in the podcast, that this technology could be more a fancy for drug cartels than pharmaceutical companies, if the law surrounding this topic has not been properly laid out and leave a gray area for crazy greedy minds.
Nevertheless, I am particularly thrilled by this technology, which could help smaller developing countries gain flexibility in manufacturing its own small-scale medicinal drugs, rather than replying on expensive pharmaceutical imports from the giants. Currently it is far from an isolated case that a patient from those countries who just undergoes a major surgery, suffers from the pain due to the lack of medical supplies.
Yeah, It is easier to be said than done. Over a sensitive topic like this, one can raise ten reasons for objection while only five in favor of it. However what I would like to say is, that there is no one, except the scientists themselves who discovered the yeast, has the say to deny the potential of this technology. In the end, they are the one putting in efforts and sweat, which deserves respect than despise.