Cannabis Grown From Yeast: Does The Future Of Pot Lie In A Lab?

Photo: Shutterstock

Unlike other modern high growth industries, the pot business doesn’t require a doctorate in science, or even a college degree. Much of the economic hype which surrounds the industry depends on it remaining an agricultural product. But it might not always be that way.

In September, the Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, which calls itself “the organism company”, landed a deal worth approximately $100m with Cronos Group, one of Canada’s most prominent cannabis companies. Ginkgo promises to produce the active ingredients in marijuana from genetically modified microorganisms, such as yeast. The company says its process, which draws on the field of synthetic biology, will produce a far greater array of valuable compounds at greater purity and for less money than marijuana plants can.

In brewing beer, yeast functions essentially as a factory, converting sugar into alcohol. Ginkgo plans to modify the DNA of yeast (or another microorganism) so its enzymes convert a “soup” of sugar, vitamins, nitrogen and other ingredients into THC, CBD and other chemicals found in marijuana. Instead of growing on farms, the chemicals will be produced in giant metal vats, like the ones at breweries.

While it certainly presents challenges, the science involved is established, said Ginkgo’s head of business development, Jess Leber. “It’s something we can wrap our heads around pretty readily.”

These kinds of technologies have immense value in the mainstream economy. Similar processes are already used to produce inexpensive compounds such as animal and human food additives. “That citric acid is not coming from citrus,” Leber said. He describes Ginkgo’s chief innovation as standardizing biology into biological engineering.

The company has also announced non-cannabis-related partnerships with an impressive array of multinationals including the massive agriculture firms ADM, Cargill and Bayer Crop Science, and Ajinomoto, a Japanese food and chemical company. Ginkgo also has a partnership with Darpa, the Pentagon’s experimental technology lab. The specific natures of most of these projects are confidential, but Ginkgo’s web site demonstrates how it produced rose oil from yeast for the French flavor and fragrance company Robertet.

Cronos first encountered Ginkgo when the latter gave a presentation at a marijuana conference, and it’s easy to see why Ginkgo was eager to join the green rush. The marijuana plant is said to produce more than 100 compounds known as cannabinoids. So far, however, there’s only a market for two of them, THC and CBD. One is the stuff that gets people high and the other has been FDA approved to treat severe childhood seizure disorders, and has numerous other potential medical and wellness applications.

Since the two most familiar cannabinoids are both immensely valuable, there’s a great deal of interest in learning about the others. About a dozen have been studied, but none is found in greater than trace amounts in the commercial cannabis supply. Once Ginkgo has invented a new microorganism, a heretofore rare cannabinoid can be inexpensively produced in mass quantities.

One Ginkgo competitor, the San Diego-based Cellibre, says it plans to use microorganisms which will produce cannabinoids more efficiently than Ginkgo’s. Its CEO, Ben Chiarelli, compared it to how insulin was produced in livestock pancreases before it could be synthesized from E coli. (Insulin can also be produced from, you guessed it, yeast.)

Nor is synthetic biology the only promising area of scientific development. This week, Canopy Growth, a large Canadian marijuana company, said it would acquire cannabis and hemp-related technologies developed by the Colorado start-up Ebbu, including a way to greatly reduce the cost of producing CBD from hemp. If the science reaches designated milestones, the deal could be worth more than $300m. (Canada has just become the largest country to legalize recreational cannabis.)

The cannabis plant’s current value to commercial science owes to its unique legal status, as well as its chemistry. Because of prohibition, the plant has largely been excluded from scientific developments since the second world war. This creates opportunities to apply existing science, such as genetic modification, to this newly available and wildly lucrative crop.