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What if you could produce powerful painkillers, like codeine or morphine, the same way you brew beer?

It's an enticing idea, and researchers at Concordia University and University of California, Berkeley, say they have engineered yeast that would be able to do just that when added to sugar.

In new studies published in the journals Nature Chemical Biology and PLOS One, the researchers were able to introduce opium-poppy plant genes into yeast to convert sugar into chemical precursors to opiate drugs, including codeine, morphine and oxycodone. The team stopped short of producing opiate molecules outright, but they say their work suggests it can be done, and a wide range of other drugs could be produced in a similar way.

"We have all the ingredients and the recipe. We just have to bake the final cake," says Concordia researcher Dr. Vincent Martin, explaining that because opiates are controlled substances, he and his collaborators were cautious not to produce the drug compounds themselves. "We didn't want to have the full recipe – the whole thing – out there [available to anyone] … so there's still a little bit of a secret sauce."

Although the actual brewing process was no different from fermenting beer, engineering the yeast was a complicated endeavour. Since opium poppies naturally produce codeine and morphine, the researchers first had to identify all the genes of the poppy plant. They then introduced these genes into a strain of yeast, commonly used to make wine, beer and bread. Then, with much tinkering, they manipulated the yeast and plant metabolism so that they could work together to convert sugar into the molecules that the plant naturally makes.

While Martin says the term "genetic engineering" is too simplistic to describe this new field of science, known as synthetic biology, it can perhaps best be understood as "biological engineering on steroids" or "genetic engineering to the extreme."

Doing this commercially is still a long way off. But Martin suggests producing drugs with yeast, rather than extracting them from plants, could be more efficient for pharmaceutical companies and more environmentally sustainable. The process could potentially be adapted to create other drugs, such as antibiotics or anti-cancer therapies, and to produce new molecules not found in nature that could be used to develop new medications – a prospect that Martin believes has huge potential. "Now you're talking about a drug discovery tool by large-scale genetic engineering."

Editor's note: Concordia University was incorrectly named in the original version of this article.