Various companies in Silicon Valley believe they are capable of doing nature better than Mother. “A lot of people say, ‘This is crazy, [don’t] synthesize these chemicals, let nature do it,’” said Jason Poulos, CEO of Librede, the first company to patent a cannabinoid production process from sugar-fed yeast. “And I want to thank nature for what it's done, but I want to do it even better.”
Waves of legalization, cannabidiol’s wellness craze and an undeniably profitable market have gained the attention of the start-up and tech sectors. With the focus on “moving fast and breaking things,” many are looking to streamline and disrupt the very process of growing and sourcing cannabinoids, to the point of removing the cannabis plant itself from the equation. The new-fangled process involves inserting enzymes that yield THC, CBD and lesser-known cannabinoids into bioengineered fungus, brewer’s yeast. This system is meant to use less water, land and energy than growing cannabis, which can be expensive and resource-consuming. “There’s no fertilizers, there’s no pesticides,” Poulos said. “We would use some solvents, just like the cannabis industry uses for extraction. But because it’s all a closed-loop system, it can be recycled.”
Continually growing is the list of companies investing in this new technology, including Ginkgo Bioworks, in partnership with Cronos Group, Amyris Inc., and Hyasynth Bio. According to VICE, Teewinot Life Sciences raised $12.3 million in Series B funding for cannabinoids derived from yeast or a strain of E. coli in 2017. Last month, Willow Biosciences closed a deal to produce CBD from yeast for Noramco, a division of SK Capital. And in just the following two weeks, biotech corporation Intrexon, founded in 1998 and headquartered in Germantown, Maryland, licensed their proprietary yeast fermentation platform for a cool $100 million to the Florida-based medical cannabis company and delivery service Surterra Wellness.
As expected, this scientific breakthrough hasn’t come without its criticisms and resistance. Ethan Russo, director of research at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, offers that the process isn’t fully carbon-neutral. “It’s environmentally taxing to grow cannabis inside, but really, that’s a byproduct of prohibition,” he said.
“They're gonna have one organism that can make multiple cannabinoids and terpenoids? I don't think so. If any of these companies are thinking about pharmaceutical development, the product is going to have to come from one species,” Russo said. “Otherwise, it's a combination product and it vastly complicates the regulatory process.” So far, these yeasts can only produce a few certain types of cannabinoids.
Russo wrote definitively in Frontiers in Plant Science that, “The plant does it better.” This was published just a month before scientists at natural medicine manufacturer Demetrix announced that they’d modified Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or “baker’s yeast,” to produce cannabinoids, including “unnatural” cannabinoids, which do not occur in nature. The company Librede has recently generated cannabigerol, or CBG, which shows evidence for therapeutic effects on inflammatory bowel disease and glaucoma, though the science is currently scarce.
There is no question that the capabilities exist, so then the underlying discussion revolves around should it be used? Are the natural processes of the Earth complete and perfect the way they are? Does it supply humanity with all that it needs to thrive? Or are the natural systems stepping stones meant to be improved? Are we caretakers of what this planet provides, or are what this planet provides tools for us to use for advancement?
By RJ Blade
RJ Balde is a freelance writer, host, actor, performer, having worked in cannabis writing and advocacy for the last decade. RJ has worked with numerous organizations and media companies in cannabis writing, show hosting, and advocacy, including Airtime, Eaze, SDA Media, TRICHOMES.com, and WeedTube.