Home-brewed heroin could become a terrifying reality within two years following the creation of genetically modified yeast that can be used to make opiate drugs, experts have warned.
Scientists called for urgent action to prevent criminal organisations gaining access to the technology, which could allow them to abandon opium poppy farms and ply their illegal trade from a plethora of local ‘factories’.
Their fears are spelled out in the leading journal Nature while a scientific paper describing key stages in the process of producing opiates from sugar-fed yeast appears in a sister publication.
Together with previously reported research, all the steps necessary to make morphine from yeast and glucose are now in place.
Converting morphine to raw and then purified heroin involves simple chemistry requiring no specialised skills.
Professor Tania Bubela, from the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, Canada, said: “In principle, anyone with access to the yeast strain and basic skills in fermentation could grow morphine- producing yeast using a home-brew kit for beer- making.” Illegal heroin is made from morphine extracted from opium poppies grown in countries such as Burma, Afghanistan, Mexico and Laos.
The aim of research was not to find an easy way to manufacture the drug but to open up new avenues for the production of therapeutic medicines.
The US and Canadian team is openly concerned about the potential dangers of the technology. Lead author US bioengineer John Dueber, from the University of California at Berkeley, said: “We’re likely looking at a timeline of a couple of years, not a decade or more, when sugar-fed yeast could reliably produce a controlled substance.
“The time is now to think about policies to address this area of research.
“The field is moving surprisingly fast and we need to be out in front so that we can mitigate the potential for abuse,” he said.
In a Nature comment article, Professor Bubela and two US experts, Kenneth Oye and Chappell Lawson, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describe the threat even more starkly and set out recommendations for global regulators and the scientific community.
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