Home-brew heroin: scientists close to making opiate yeast

Governments told to take action now to prevent morphine-making yeast getting into wrong hands


Scientists are said to be one step closer to creating opiate-producing yeast – theoretically enabling someone with the right ingredients to make morphine in their kitchen with a home-brewing kit.

Researchers at California have created a genetically engineered yeast that produces the main precursor of opiates and they now believe a low-yielding strain of morphine-making yeast could be made in less than three years.

"The field is moving much faster than we had previous realised," John Dueber of the University of California, Berkeley, told the New Scientist.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

A high-yielding strain might take "many more years" to produce, but "once it exists, in theory anyone who got hold of it could make morphine in their kitchen using only a home-brewing kit", says the magazine. Essentially this would be a beer with morphine in it, says Dueber, and perhaps as little as a few milliletres would get you high.

The implications of these biosynthetic yeasts becoming widely available are far reaching, although the strain or instructions to create it would first have to be leaked from scientific laboratories.

The drugs market would potentially be transformed, with heroin no longer produced abroad and imported by criminal gangs. However, others suggest that traffickers might simply turn their hand to other criminal exploits, while the plant-growing illicit market might be replaced with the home-brewing illicit market.

Home-brewing drugs would also be harder to detect. Growing cannabis plants, for example, requires a lot of electricity and can be spotted using thermal imaging cameras on police helicopters.

In the journal Nature, Tania Bubela, a public health researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada, says governments need to act now to prevent morphine-making yeasts getting into the wrong hands. This might include a legal ban on distributing opiate-making yeasts strains and keeping strains in secure, government-licensed facilities.

"If the history of drug control efforts is anything to go by, though, such measures won't prevent the cat from being let out of the bag before too long," says the New Scientist.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.