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Close-up of bacteriaI remember an exciting moment in the '70s when scientists began developing synthetic biology. We could all see the potential of the technology, which is the deliberate modification of simple organisms such as yeast, to make medicines or other molecules that have commercial value.

For example, we no longer need to harvest the bark of willow trees to produce aspirin because we’ve moved the genes involved in its biochemical pathway into yeast. A series of chemical reactions, catalyzed by proteins called enzymes, produce the drug. Other chemical pathways are present in all plants and organisms, which we’ve been able to exploit to make various products in the lab using yeast.

Now we may have successfully done the same with morphine. This could create a reliable supply without cultivating the poppy crop which has long had political and criminal impacts since heroin is produced from morphine. It would also eclipse legitimate farmers who produce morphine for prescription drug use since yeast factories are not subject to weather.

On the flip side, if criminals got access to the technology, they’d also have an easier way to produce heroin and maybe create an even cheaper illegal supply of the addictive drug. Obviously, we’d need to guard the technology.

The advantage of yeast is that you can grow billions of these engineered organisms in the lab and then extract the drug that was made. No harvesting of plants or extensive chemical synthesis is needed. It is really that easy. Today, the most effective malaria drug is produced this way and even Vanillin… the synthetic vanilla that flavors some of your favorite foods.