Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have just made a major discovery, a discovery that allows them to make THC in a lab without using plants. For decades, scientists have been chasing after the biological mechanisms that produce THC, CBD and other cannabinoids in cannabis plants. But finding them is only part of the challenge. The other part is consistently replicating them in a lab. And on Wednesday, UC Berkeley scientists announced that for the first time, they were able to create cannabinoids without ever touching a cannabis plant.
Will the Future of Medical Cannabis Be Plant-Free?
Several major pharmaceutical and biotech firms have been hard at work decoding the genome of the cannabis plant. The goal? To use plants’ DNA to genetically produce cannabinoids directly, without growing the plants that produce them naturally. The approach, known as synthetic biology, is a pathbreaking and increasingly popular genetic engineering technique.
To put it in the simplest terms, scientists splice weed DNA into the DNA of yeast, which are single-cell microorganisms. Then, they let the yeast do its thing. And that thing is decoding its DNA and using the genetic instructions to make the proteins and enzymes yeast need to survive and reproduce. So by slicing in DNA from cannabis plants, scientists can get yeast to produce chemicals they can then turn into THC.
The experiment, says lead researcher and UC Berkeley bioengineer Jay Keasling, involved a lot of trial and error. And for a long time, it was mostly error. “We tried all the tricks we had,” Keasling told Business Insider. “We just could not get it to work.”
Keasling, of course, isn’t the first to try using synthetic biology to make cannabinoids. But his team says it is the first to identify a key step in the biological pathway from DNA to THC. Instead of trying to get yeast to synthesize THC directly, they figured out how to make yeast produce a cannabinoid precursor. That precursor is the enzyme CsPT4. Using that enzyme, scientists can make the chemical components they need to piece together cannabinoids. Not just THC and CBD, but rarer, trace cannabinoids like THCV and CBN that researchers believe have untapped therapeutic potential.
The Pros and Cons of Biosynthesized Cannabis
The advantages of biosynthesizing cannabinoids, from an industry perspective, are numerous. But the one that has pharmaceutical companies—and Wall Street—champing at the bit is simple efficiency. Instead of spending millions on massive cultivation operations, producing and processing hundreds of thousands of plants, companies could bypass the entire growth cycle of the plant and simply produce cannabinoids in isolation.
Proponents say that lab-made THC and CBD would be quicker and more efficient. They also think costs would be a fraction of traditional farming. Given recent concerns over the environmental impacts of cannabis agriculture, lab-synthesized weed’s smaller environmental footprint offers a solution. The implications for the medical cannabis industry are massive.
But lab-made THC is anathema to those who argue for the medicinal and therapeutic benefits of “whole plant” cannabis products. From this perspective, the healing effects of cannabis stem from interactions between the body and the hundreds of cannabinoids plants produce. And it’s unclear whether consuming a cannabinoid in isolation can produce similar results.
But researchers intend to find out. And the ability to isolate and produce single cannabinoids is an indispensable step toward acquiring that knowledge. That’s why VC firms are investing millions in cannabis-related synthetic biology. For the first time, scientists will be able to produce rare and trace cannabinoids in large enough quantities to study.