Scientists Genetically Engineer Yeast To Produce Morphine-Like Painkiller

Normally takes around a year to create painkillers from opium poppies. First they have to be grown, harvested, shipped around the world and finally processed. Now researchers have been able to cut this time down to just a few days. Scientists can do this by genetically engineering yeast to do it instead. Scientists get the chemical thebaine, which they then turn into the opioid hydrocodone (painkiller).


Team from Stanford, have engineered the yeast to produce hydrocodone from sugar

  • Study published in Science
  • The researchers say it’s only the beginning
  • Techniques developed for opioid pain relievers can be adapted to produce many plant-derived compounds to fight cancers, infectious diseases and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and arthritis
  • Researchers were able to tweak the genetic machinery of the yeast, inserting 23 genes taken from a wide range of species, including plants, bacteria, and even rats
  • One of the most complex chemical pathways ever created in yeast
  • Building on previous research using yeast to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin, researchers were finally able to bridge a gap in the production of opioids
  •  Team had largely managed to replicate the entire process years earlier than anyone could have predicted
  •  Process still needs refinement
  • Currently takes around 20,000 liters of bioengineered yeast to produce a single dose of hydrocodone


  1. Making it easier to create illicit substances, such as heroin, in the same way people brew beer
  2. Team wants to ensure that the bio-based production of medicinal compounds is developed in the most responsible way