It used to be that if you wanted to produce THC (short for Tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive compound found in marijuana, you had to grow some cannabis. But that's no longer the case. Thanks to genetic engineering, there is now such a thing as THC-producing yeast, reports the New York Times.

The breakthrough could make it easier to produce the compound for medical purposes and for research without all the hoopla surrounding the legality of growing marijuana. For the many people that depend on medical marijuana, such as those that take it to treat the nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite caused by HIV infection or cancer chemotherapy, that could be a game changer.

“This is something that could literally change the lives of millions of people,” said Kevin Chen, the chief executive of Hyasynth Bio, a company working to create yeasts that produce THC.

THC can be produced synthetically, in pill form, as well. But genetically modified yeast could provide a far cheaper way to make the compound.

The researchers who engineered the THC-producing yeast also successfully designed yeast that can produce cannabidiol, another compound found in cannabis that has medical benefits. Though the amount of THC and cannabidiol produced by these yeasts is small compared to the cannabis plant, researchers are optimistic that further engineering and research can increase yield and make these yeasts competitive with marijuana.

Of course, there is also the potential for THC-producing yeast to offer drug users a few new ways to get high, a fact not lost on the researchers. So far, though, such options — which include using the yeast to produce THC-infused beer — remain off the table.

“People keep asking about it,” Mr. Chen said. “But there’s bigger potential there than just making a beer.”

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Yeast genetically engineered to produce THC
There's now a new source for the main psychoactive compound found in marijuana.