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Businesses Rush To Manufacture Synthetic Pot

Demetrix says its modified brewer's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) will provide access to rare cannabis compounds.

At least a dozen bio-tech companies plan to make the main chemicals in marijuana synthetically, according to the MIT Technology Review.

The rush to make and market bio-pot follows research on how to do it. The University of California Berkeley published its findings in the journal Nature.

Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Bioengineering Jay Keasling set out to find a safer and more environmentally friendly way to produce cannabinoids.

With approval and oversight by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, UC Berkeley used yeast and a series of chemical steps to produce what researchers called the "mother of all cannabinoids," or CBGA (cannabigeroilic acid). It also made two other natural cannabinoids, CBDV ad THCV, of which more study is needed. 

"There are 100 or so far less concentrated cannabinoid molecules which remain little studied because the plant has been illegal," the MIT Technology Review says.

Keasling founded a California company, Demetrix, which licensed the technology from Berkeley to use yeast fermentation to make cannabinoids. Demetrix says it will manufacture synthetic cannabinoids for medical marijuana not recreational use.

Jeff Ubersax, CEO of Demetrix, says his company is already making some bio-pot in a pilot production.

Other companies using fermenting yeast, bacteria or algae include Amyris, Ginkgo Bioworks, Hyasynth, Farmako and Intrexon.

Amyris says an investor group has pledged $300 million if the company can figure out how to make cannabinoids for large-scale use in consumer brands. Sunil Chandran, PhD, VP at Amyris says, the company is working to "create the highest purity and lowest cost cannabinoid molecules."

He says, "We are not producing THC , which  is commonly associated with ”weed”. “Weed” also contains a complex mixture of hundreds of biological molecules that includes multiple cannabinoids and terpenes among many others. Our process will generate a pure cannabinoid molecule instead of the complex “weed” mixture."

MIT reports Cronos will pay Gingko $22 million and another $100 million in stock if it can get yeast to make eight different cannabinoids at a cost of $1,000 a kilogram or less. That's a lot less than extracting the molecules from the plants.

Scientists who can make synthetic cannabinoids are in demand. Viridian Staffing specializes in finding them. CEO Kara Bradford says, "We're definitely getting and seeing more of a request for talent in the bio-pot space now than we had seem previously."

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.