How opium poppies process morphine revealed for the first time

Posted Aug 2, 2015 by Tim Sandle
The process by which a poppy encodes enzymes to make morphine has been discovered. This relates to a specific gene. This could lead to alternative ways to produce the drug.
The red poppy has become a symbol of Remembrance Day due to the poem  In Flanders Fields  by John Mc...
The red poppy has become a symbol of Remembrance Day due to the poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae. The poem was written about the poppies blooming across some of the worst battlefields of Flanders in World War I.
Photo by David Huang
The reason the research is important is because many parts of the world do not have ready access to painkillers like morphine. Although synthetic analgesics are available, these are expensive and it remains that the majority of pain killing medications are made from the poppy plant (Papaver somniferum). Opium, derived from the poppy, is the source of many drugs, such as morphine (and the derivative heroin), thebaine, codeine, papaverine, and noscapine. Chemically these painkillers are alkaloids, derived from the seed pod of the plant. After drying, ‘raw opium’ is produced. This is around 8-14 percent morphine by weight.
In a breakthrough, scientists based at University of Calgary worked out how poppies synthesize the pain killing enzymes needed to create morphine. This is through locating the specific gene. This seemingly simple discovery has taken the laboratory of Peter Facchini 23 years of painstaking work.
It is hoped that the gene can one day be genetically engineered into suitable yeasts, so that the microbes can be rendered into morphine producing factories. Other potential drugs to be produced include codeine and oxycodone.
The way towards this will be complex and the gene would need to have its genetic code tweaked and then to be reassembled in the years following the correct sequence. The aim would be for a yeast to produce (S)-reticuline, a precursor to a wide range of therapeutic alkaloids.
In some interim studies, one litre of yeast mix produced only 80 micrograms of alkaloids. However, the research group think that the yield can be significantly increased.
The research has been published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology. The research paper is titled “Stereochemical inversion of (S)-reticuline by a cytochrome P450 fusion in opium poppy.”