Humans have been using yeast for millennia (think beer! and bread!). In fact, it’s hard to imagine where we’d be as a species without yeast’s unique ability to turn sugar into alcohol. But scientists are now using it to do something that sounds improbable – create yeast-derived cannabis compounds like CBD and THC.
This process has the potential to be a massive disruptor of the whole cannabis industry. But how does it work? Is it safe? And what might be lost by focusing on biosynthesized cannabinoids?
While yeast-grown CBD sounds pretty futuristic, the basic technology was first pioneered in the 1970s to produce insulin (which was previously extracted from pig pancreases). The process for insulin involves splicing human DNA and placing it into yeast, in which the insulin grows quickly and efficiently.
Similarly, scientists have identified the genes responsible for cannabinoid production in cannabis. They transfer that genetic information into optimized yeast strains which essentially become cannabinoid factories. The process of fermentation takes just days (compare that to the months it takes for a cannabis plant to grow and you begin to see the appeal of this system.)
At the end of this tightly controlled process, what is left are isolated cannabinoids that companies will combine and formulate into edibles, oils, topical creams, or any other product you’ve seen on the market.
And we may be seeing these products sooner than we had thought possible.
The process of growing cannabinoids in yeast is relatively inexpensive and results in highly consistent, pure cannabinoids. But is it possible to replicate the adaptogenic complexity of cannabis in a lab?
One company that has been quick to jump on the possibilities of yeast-derived cannabinoids is Willow, a Canadian biotech company based in Vancouver, BC. The company prides itself on producing active pharmaceutical ingredients and other high-value products that have traditionally been derived from plants.
In the last year, Willow has progressed in its work in developing CBD-producing yeast strains and has already developed a process to produce cannabigerol (CBG), a promising cannabinoid that early research suggests has anti-microbial and antioxidant properties.
There’s no denying the market potential of CBG, but the problem with the cannabinoid to date is that it has proved difficult to produce in appreciable quantities in the cannabis plant. But Willow’s proprietary yeast production process is expected to be able to produce commercial quantities of the substance, quickly.
According to Willow CEO, Trevor Peters, the market opportunity for these high-purity cannabinoids manufactured under GMP control is expected to be in the billions of dollars in the coming years:
“Willow’s scientific and operational success to date has solidified the use of yeast fermentation as a production platform,” said Peters. “Our scientific discoveries over the past 14 months have contributed to the development of not one, but five different cannabinoids and our pilot project production samples expected to be available in Q3 of 2020 will make Willow the first to biosynthetically produce material amounts of cannabinoids.”
Assuming the process is done right, it’s hard to deny that yeast-grown cannabinoids will be big money-makers. They will be high-purity, highly consistent substances, and not subject to the difficulties involved in growing legal hemp (like keeping THC below the legal limit).
But it’s worth reflecting on what might be lost in the process. It’s true that combining multiple yeast-derived cannabinoids and terpenes may be able to replicate the so-called entourage effect (which some scientists believe come with a true full-spectrum cannabis product). But will a biosynthesized cannabinoid ever be able to approximate the complexity of the cannabis plant?
As well, cannabis farmers will be keeping a close eye on this technology, since the demand for cannabinoids is still what is largely driving prices of the legal hemp crop at present. Of course, the hemp plant has uses that go well beyond extractable cannabinoids – uses we’ve just started to appreciate.
Overall, there are many unknowns when it comes to the benefits of this novel method of cannabinoid extraction. Probably, yeast-grown cannabinoids can exist alongside cannabis extracts, with each appealing to its own niche of the market. It just remains to be seen if the cannabinoid-hungry public will be willing, once again, to give yeast a chance.