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Create home-made morphine with DIY beer kits

By Stephen Morgan     May 19, 2015 in Science
I remember staying with an old friend in Dublin many years ago, and I asked him if I could take a bath. Sorry, he said, "the bathtub is occupied – it's full of fermenting homemade beer."
Now it seems, my old pal could not only be saving a few bucks these days through home-brewing, but he could also be making a pretty penny by slightly modifying his beer-making process, and changing his bathroom into an elicit lab for the manufacture of morphine.
Working with the same basic ingredients, plus one additive, scientists have recently shown it isn't difficult to to make gallons of morphine, instead of pints of stout, just by slightly adapting a home-brew beer kit.
Wired explains that wheat can naturally extract sugar from numerous sources, after which it ferments and becomes ethanol, the scientific classification for drinkable alcohol.
Now, researchers have shown that they can transform the sugar into morphine, and this could have important medical implications, including lower cost painkillers, anesthetics and other medications.
Until recently, the BBC explains that the team had hit a brick wall in their efforts to produce this new modified morphine. Their problems centered on creating an intermediary chemical called reticuline to complete the process.
They have just overcome this barrier and say they are now well on the way to creating a new "opiate-strain" of wheat which could be grown and harvested in the US.
Morphine, of course, is a very effective and relatively harmless painkiller, when the dosage is strictly administered by health care workers. Patients with terminal cancer and other painful illnesses couldn't do without it.
But morphine is basically opium, which comes from the opium poppy and it is also the drug from which heroin is derived.
Morphine is highly addictive, and has similar effects on the brain as heroin. It is a substance which people can become quickly dependent on, both physically and psychologically. Administered in too high a dosage, it can also kill.
The Opium Poppy. The white  milky latex being exuded in this image is raw opium. The active ingredie...
The Opium Poppy. The white, milky latex being exuded in this image is raw opium. The active ingredient in opium is morphine, a very addictive substance. Raw opium is refined into morphine base in crude field laboratories. Morphine base is a sticky, brown paste which can either be smoked or processed into heroin. Once processed into heroin, the drug is usually shipped out to nations throughout the world.
KGM007 / Wikimedia
Therefore, despite improvements to legal drugs, which may come from this work, facilitating easier production of synthetic morphine could have serious social and individual consequences.
For the moment, the researchers are cautious about explaining too much about their experiments, because it could fall into the wrong hands.
“We didn’t want the final strain to be made and then tell the public that [homebrewing] was a possibility,” said John Dueber, a bioengineer at UC Berkeley and lead author on the study.
The BBC quotes a comment under the original published article in Nature journal, which said;
"In principle, anyone with access to the yeast strain and basic skills in fermentation would be able to grow morphine producing yeast using a home-brew kit for beer-making."
It wouldn't take long for the scientists' secrets to seep out over the Internet. Once organized crime has such a morphine yeast strain in its hands, then mass production of opiate drugs could begin across the US and beyond.
Potentially, a new "cottage industry" of thousands of small opiate producing homes could spring up making effective policing an almost impossible task.
Prior to publishing their research, the team warned other health professionals that the studies could make homemade morphine and derivatives "easy to grow, conceal and distribute."
Copying the scientific process, shouldn't be too big a task for the highly organized and sophisticated drug cartels. Their own professionals will take charge of securing the right ingredients, and others will get to grips with the relatively easy task of manufacturing it.
Wired quotes Dueber, as saying;
“Right now, you would need a background in synthetic biology and genetics to overcome the challenges to produce the right kind of yeast.... But if a strain made for licit purposes got out, then all that would be required is knowledge of brewing beer to ferment it into morphine.”
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