Could Yeast Be a Game Changer for Cannabinoid Production?

The process used to brew beer and bake bread could prove to be groundbreaking for cannabis researchers. And a growing number of biotech companies are betting on the process to help them more cost-effectively produce cannabinoids, or the compounds found in cannabis. 

Demetrix is one of those companies. Jeff Ubersax, the CEO of Demetrix, an Emeryville, California-based biotech company that is researching yeast-derived cannabinoids, said the company has a yeast strain that is able to produce cannabinoids at a lower cost than more traditional agricultural methods. 

“How do we use biotechnology to make these compounds that have been present in the plant for a really long time?” he told Cannabis Wire. The process could help them access cannabinoids present at low levels in the plant, which are understudied because they are difficult to access, he added. 

Demetrix was co-founded by Jay Keasling, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of a study in the journal Nature published in February on yeast-derived cannabinoids. The scientists in Keasling’s lab were able to use brewer’s yeast to produce CBD and THC. Demetrix licenses technology from Keasling’s lab at Berkeley. 

The process holds “the possibility of new therapies based on novel cannabinoids: the rare ones that are nearly impossible to get from the plant, or the unnatural ones, which are impossible to get from the plant,” Keasling said in a UC Berkeley announcement about the research. 

Another company founded by Keasling, the biotech company Amyris, is now working on yeast cannabinoids. Rare cannabinoids would be too expensive to access via more traditional agricultural methods, said Sunil Chandran, vice president and head of research and development at Amyris. 

“There are numerous cannabinoids that might have therapeutic properties, but which are produced in extremely low amounts in the plant, thereby making their production/purification cost-prohibitive,” Chandran told Cannabis Wire in an email. 

But there are also other benefits to using yeast. For instance, Amyris doesn’t have to rely on crop yields, so its production isn’t impacted by volatile growth seasons or climate change, Chandran added. The biotech is using yeast and sugarcane to produce a fermentation broth that is primarily CBD. The company plans to deliver twenty or more pure cannabinoids in the next few years using this method, he said. 

One of the major benefits to using yeast is the amount of time it takes, said Kevin Chen, CEO and co-founder of Hyasynth Bio, a Montreal-based biotech startup. It can take months to grow a cannabis plant, whereas yeast takes about a week, he said. 

The process also requires less space, Chen added. For example, it could take a few hundred thousand square feet to house a large-scale cannabis grow, whereas a yeast operation only needs about 10,000 feet. “It has a bunch of different advantages in terms of efficiency and scalability of the technology,” Chen said. Hyasynth expects to have its first yeast-derived cannabinoid product on the market by early to mid-next year in Canada, he added.  

But not everyone is sold on the benefits of using yeast to produce all cannabinoids. While it may be useful for rare cannabinoids, plants might still be the better option for accessing CBD, as plants produce the compound in large quantities, said Jeffrey Raber, CEO of the Werc Shop, a cannabis testing lab. Yeast production may make more sense for pharmaceutical development, where more novel or rare cannabinoids can be used, he added. 

“CBD is produced so much by the plant, that’s going to be hard to compete against,” Raber said. “For something the plant isn’t going to produce a lot of any time soon might be the biggest win for that technology.” 

There will also likely be regulatory questions about yeast-derived cannabinoids as companies inch closer to market, Raber added. 

Despite these uncertainties, companies are continuing to invest in the process. In September 2018, Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company founded a decade ago by MIT researchers, formed a multimillion dollar research and development partnership with global cannabis company Cronos Group to produce yeast-derived cannabinoids. (Ginkgo Bioworks declined to be interviewed for this piece.) 

Intrexon, a Germantown, Maryland-based biotechnology company formed in the 1990s, also announced that September that they, too, have a yeast strain that can produce cannabinoids through fermentation. 

Demetrix’s Ubersax told Cannabis Wire that yeast presents a significant opportunity for researchers to more meaningfully investigate the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. 

“Here’s a class of molecules that has implications in human health and wellness that are present at very low concentrations in the plant and would be a great opportunity for biotechnology to start producing these and making them more available,” he said. 

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