Proponents of the many uses of marijuana often tout their favorite drug by noting that it comes from an all-natural source: the cannabis plant. But that might soon change, after scientists at the University of California at Berkeley managed to produce the psychoactive compounds found in cannabis entirely in the lab, without any plants needed, reports Business Insider.
It's a breakthrough that could transform the cannabis industry, both in legal and illegal markets. If this experiment can be proven to scale, marijuana's therapeutic components could be streamlined into pharmaceuticals for a fraction of the cost associated with growing and processing the plant.
Researchers accomplished the feat by first genetically engineering yeast that can produce the chemical components of marijuana's two best known compounds: THC and CBD. THC, which is short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the principal psychoactive component in cannabis. Meanwhile, CBD, or cannabidiol, is typically understood to have more therapeutic value. Once the components of these compounds were isolated, it was simple chemistry to assemble them synthetically.
"There could be whole host of new products that could come from this," said Jay Keasling, team leader on the study.
A boon for the wellness industry
There is already a huge demand for marijuana-based drugs that can help treat everything from epilepsy to arthritis. The medical market alone for such drugs is valued at billions of dollars, with plenty of room for growth, and that's not even mentioning the recreational market. Lab-made marijuana compounds would only accelerate the potential for these compounds in the pharmaceutical and consumer-wellness industries.
And all of it without the need for any fields or greenhouses, which could be a good thing for the environment given the amount of land, water, and agricultural resources required for growing the plant.
"Compared to chemical methods, biosynthesis methods are more cost-effective, scalable, and environmentally friendly," said analysts at the investment firm Cowen, which has emerged as a major player in the legal cannabis industry.
The technology could also be applied to other cannabis compounds that might have medical value as well. For instance, Keasling and his team are already working to isolate THCV, which is believed to play a key role in marijuana's ability to increase a user's appetite. The possibilities could even extend beyond cannabis, to other plant-based drugs.
"From a scientific perspective, with all the rare cannabinoids we're going to be able to produce, I think it's going to be really cool," Keasling said.