When it comes to producing drugs like heroin and cocaine, science is on the verge of a revolutionary breakthrough that could disrupt traditional drug markets by making it possible for anyone to produce their own. Researchers working with genetically engineered yeasts are rapidly advancing toward the point where all it would take is some humble fungi and a home-brewing kit.
Professor John Dueber at the University of California at Berkeley leads a team of researchers  who have created a yeast that produces S-reticuline, the main precursor of some 2,500 molecules, including opium. Their results were just published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology .
Other groups of researchers have been working on the beginning, middle, and end stages of the process  needed to make opiates from S-reticuline. In theory, combining the research efforts could create an opiate-producing yeast tomorrow; in practice, it’s likely to take a while longer.
Still, progress is accelerating.
“The field is moving much faster than we had previous realized,” Dueber told the New Scientist , adding that he now thought a morphine-making yeast was now only two or three years away.
Once high-yield morphine-producing yeasts are developed, anyone could use them to make morphine with a home-brewing kit, Dueber said. And it wouldn’t take much—perhaps a few milliliters—to get high.
“It’s probably as simple as that,” he said. “The beer would have morphine in it.”
Other researchers are doing similar work with tropane alkaloids, a family of compounds that includes cocaine. Because researchers still don’t fully understand certain steps the coca plant takes to make the alkaloids, cocaine-making yeasts are further away, but there is no reason that a coke-yeast can’t be produced once the mechanism is understood.
“Indeed, someone could potentially produce cocaine in yeast,” conceded biochemist Peter Facchini of the University of Calgary in Canada.