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Homemade heroin – how genetic engineering opened the way for synthetic opiates

Scientists have discovered how to make heroin and similar other opiates without using poppies.

The team led by researchers at University of California, Berkeley say they have identified a genetically engineered yeast able to convert sugar to a chemical that’s a precursor to morphine. 

The findings were published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

The work is the result of 10 years spent manipulating the DNA of yeast to mimic poppies in hopes of creating cheaper and less addictive painkillers.

But until now, the yeast strains have only been able to perform the last steps of a long process that leads to the creation of opiates such as morphine.

But already warning bells are being sounded over the discovery, even by the scientists themselves

Society needs to “think this through now before it becomes a reality”, said bioengineer John Dueber of the UC Berkeley, who led the team. He stopped short of producing the drug in the lab.

The journal Nature published a commentary by a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Alberta in Canada, calling for restriction of the genetically modified yeast strains to licensed facilities.

But others called for more discussion on the nature of any regulatory controls.

“While there are risks of not acting quickly enough on modifying regulations during early technical development, there are also risks of too hastily solving the wrong problems,” Megan Palmer of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University said in a statement.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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