Back in 2019, researchers published a new method in the journal Nature using genetically modified yeast to produce the cannabinoids THC and CBD. Now several businesses think this method may hold the key to manufacturing and studying rare cannabinoid compounds that would be too difficult and expensive to produce by traditional agricultural methods.

Using Yeast to Produce Cannabinoids

Led by principal investigator Jay Keasling, synthetic biologists at UC Berkeley found a way to genetically engineer brewer’s yeast to produce the primary active ingredients in cannabis: THC and CBD.

Yeast are naturally adept at converting sugar into alcohol. To coax the yeast into producing cannabinoids instead of alcohol, the researchers inserted more than a dozen genes into the yeast genome including many copies of genes used by the cannabis plant to synthesize cannabinoids. The resulting yeast strains could be fed sugar and, in turn, create large quantities of specific cannabinoids.

This method of cannabinoid production has several major benefits when compared to extraction from the cannabis plant.

  • Less time: it may take months for a cannabis plant to reach maturity, but a batch of yeast can be grown in about a week.
  • Less space: a large scale yeast operation only requires a fraction of the space of a similarly productive cannabis grow operation.
  • More sustainable: cannabis cultivation requires heavy resource usage, including lighting, ventilation, water, and pesticides. Producing cannabinoids from yeast is much less energy and resource intensive.

Yeast: The Key to Rare Cannabinoids?

Despite the benefits, it may still be difficult to outperform cannabis plant yields for THC and CBD. That’s because THC and CBD are the most abundant cannabinoids—the plant produces these compounds in large quantities. However, yeast has the potential to truly shine when it comes to more rare and novel cannabinoids.

There are over 100 cannabinoids that occur naturally in the cannabis plant but only in very small quantities. This makes them hard to extract and even harder to study. The amounts required for pharmaceutical research would be prohibitively expensive using traditional plant extraction methods. As a result, research exploring the therapeutic properties of these cannabinoids has made little progress.

Yeast production solves this problem by enabling the production of large amounts of specific cannabinoids beyond THC and CBD. Aside from THC and CBD, Keasling and his colleagues were also able to produce the naturally occurring but less abundant cannabinoids THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin) and CBDV (cannabidivarin).

They also found that yeast as well as the enzymatic steps required for making cannabinoids were quite flexible. This means researchers could design yeast strains to produce both rare and completely novel cannabinoids with medically useful properties.

A New Supply Chain for Rare Cannabinoids

Principal investigator Jay Keasling has founded two companies, Demetrix and Amyris, that are licensing Keasling’s yeast method for cannabinoid production. Other companies have also hopped on the yeast bandwagon for cannabinoid production including the Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks and the Maryland-based Intrexon.

Cannabinoids represent the crucial active ingredients in every cannabis product. At Encore Labs, we offer comprehensive cannabinoid profiling and potency testing. Contact us today to learn more.