Thebaine is an opiate precursor most people have never heard of. It made the news recently because it was produced by common brewer’s yeast. The genetically modified (GMO) yeast was able to make thebaine from a simple, common sugar.
Thebaine is an alkaloid substance as are Nicotine & Caffeine. Thebaine is also an opiate, similar to Morpine & codeine but has no therapeutic use until converted to better known painkillers such as Oxycodone & Naloxone. This novel synthesis was chosen because it was challenging to biochemists & because the starter molecule was Glucose, a common & very important monosaccharide (sugar).
Where does GMO come into it?
GMO has been painted, often unfairly, as simply a money making scheme concocted by “Big Agriculture” & “Big Pharmaceutical”. This may be true in part but there is far more to it. Many important pharmaceuticals such as insulin, prescribed for the ever growing number of diabetics, are made this way. The process involves inserting the human gene for insulin into bacteria that in turn produce this hormone, safely, in quantities far greater than can be done in a lab.
Gene therapy has great promise to fix many genetic ailments that cannot be addressed any other way. This can range from cystic fibrosis to multiple sclerosis to cancer. The only real difference between this & GMO is that gene therapy involves inserting human genes into humans while GMO can use genes from any source.
What makes this experiment so interesting?
Researchers at Stanford University inserted genes into Saccharomyces cerevisaie, the yeast familiar to bread, beer & wine makers. What made the experiment unusual & the outcome potentially very rewarding is that it involved the genes for 21 different enzymes from a variety of species.
Who benefits from this work?
We all do. The researchers stated the aim was to make opiates more cost effectively than can be done by growing poppies. But, the real benefit comes from the knowledge of how to combine genetic material from so many sources. Our once reliable supply of antibiotics may soon run out (see our blog on Colistin). Any replacements are sure to come from biological entities ranging from sponges to snails to plants which on their own could not possibly make them in sufficient quantities.
If you’re a fan of science fiction you can appreciate that this knowledge may well play a role in our evolution too as we reach out to the stars to find new worlds to colonize. Who knows what genes we will require to cope with strange environments on alien worlds. Future explorers may well have to bring a vast range of genomic material, banked from many earth species, to ensure their survival.
Make your own molecular model of Thebaine or any of the other chemicals mentioned on this page using our 3D Molecular Model Builder.