With Potential Illicit Yeast Strains, Biology’s Breaking Bad Has Arrived
Another week, another warning about the growing power and peril of genomic modification. Last time, the topic was using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing method to alter the human germ line (a group of researchers promptly published on how they did just this). Now, a new commentary in Nature takes up the implications of using modified yeast to produce controlled substances such as opiates.
The story is essentially a mashup of synthetic biology and home brewing. The commentary’s authors describe how, over the past seven years, three groups of researchers modified yeast strains using genetic components from poppy, beetroot, and a soil bacterium, while a fourth group has identified a key enzyme via gene silencing. Put these puzzle pieces together in one yeast genome, and you’d have a single strain capable of producing morphine from glucose. From there, anyone with the hypothetical yeast — as yet, no one has actually synthesized such a strain — and a home-brew beer kit would have everything needed to set up a powerful illicit drug lab.
What’s to be done? The authors recommend several practical measures, including controlling yeast strains and relevant DNA sequence information using security precautions already in place for pathogenic organisms and sequences. But beyond giving the next Walter White tools for crime, there are also many positive applications, from cheaper legal painkillers to using modified yeast to produce other useful compounds. Expect more such multisided stories as synthetic biology becomes a reality.