Yeast Could Help Fill Demand for Cannabinoid Compounds

Genetic modification could allow yeast to produce any of dozens of cannabinoid compounds with potential therapeutic applications.
Genetic modification could allow yeast to produce any of dozens of cannabinoid compounds with potential therapeutic applications.

In the recent Farm Journal series on cannabis in U.S. Agriculture, editors reported that cannabinoids, particularly cannabidiol (CBD), but also its psychoactive cousin tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and others, could have applications in large-animal veterinary medicine. CBD products already see wide use in treating a range of conditions in companion animals and in humans, and ongoing research continues to build evidence supporting their safety and efficacy. 

Cannabinoids could, potentially, reduce stress, improve fertility, boost feed intake and treat some chronic conditions in cattle and hogs, but commercial applications face two major barriers. 

One of these is the long-term financial investment required to demonstrate safety and efficacy of these products in food animals. We would need extensive research to determine effective formulations and dosage, analysis of residues in meat or milk and determination of appropriate withdrawal times for food safety. This barrier could constitute a deal-breaker.

The other key barrier is the cost of producing cannabinoid products using traditional methods: extracting and concentrating the compounds from cannabis plants. Production of hemp and marijuana is increasing rapidly as acceptance grows though, and the 2018 farm bill legalizes hemp production nationwide. Prices likely will drop as production grows, but probably not enough for cost-effective applications in commercial livestock herds. 

Genetic technology however, could help address that second barrier. Researchers at the University of California – Berkeley have modified yeast cells (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) by inserting key genes from the cannabis plant, allowing the yeast to convert sugars into specific cannabinoids. 

The researchers say study and medicinal use of cannabinoids has been hampered by the legal scheduling of Cannabis, the low abundances of nearly all known cannabinoids in plant material, and their structural complexity, which limits bulk chemical synthesis. Quoted in a Scientific American article, researcher Jay Keasling says yeast potentially could produce cannabinoids for about $400 per kilogram, compared with up to $40,000 per kilogram when using synthetic chemistry.


The researchers also note that cannabis plants contain up to 100 cannabinoids besides the better-known THC and CBD. At least some of those probably have therapeutic applications, and biosynthesis using modified yeast could enable research and eventual bulk production of those compounds.


The research report, titled “Complete biosynthesis of cannabinoids and their unnatural analogues in yeast,” is published in the journal Nature.


For more about cannabis production and its potentials in crop and livestock production, see our Farm Journal Special Report: Cannabis in U.S. Agriculture.


For information specifically on potential applications of cannabis products in livestock production, see Cannabis in Veterinary Medicine.


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