Will Drug-Producing Yeast Strains Negatively Impact Homebrewing?

220px-Morphin_-_Morphine.svgYesterday, I posted a brief description of how, very soon, there will be a yeast strain capable of producing morphine from glucose. The usual substrates for morphine production, compounds isolated from opium poppies, will not be required. The simplicity of how morphine could potentially be produced has already caused nearly every article in the popular press (and many in the scientific press) to claim that producing morphine could be as easy as brewing beer at home. Some articles even unequivocally link the two. This should cause some concern among homebrewers.

If typical homebrewing equipment comes to be seen by the public — including law enforcement and law makers — as capable of producing narcotics, it is not unreasonable to worry that someone may call for something to be done. (“Won’t somebody please think of the children!”) Homebrewing only recently became fully legal in all 50 states, and some of the arguments in state legislatures against homebrewing showed a severe lack of understanding of the hobby.

Of course, there’s a vast difference between a reasonable worry and full-on panic. Even so, I think it would be it would be advisable for homebrewers to stress — to anyone who asks — that homebrew fermenters are not designed like industrial fermenters and would not be able to efficiently produce morphine in useful quantities. This also, of course, assumes the homebrewer would be able to obtain the right yeast strain, which is unlikely.

Most industrial fermenters are constantly stirred, and they may additionally be constantly aerated, or designed to slowly drip nutrient-rich solutions into the mix. Depending on what is being made, the temperature, pH, concentration of key metabolites, etc., may be constantly monitored.

In contrast, the vast majority of homebrewers ferment in carboys or buckets. Most of our equipment is used for wort production, which would have no use in morphine production. Anyone with a bucket in their garage and a bag of sugar and jar of molasses in their kitchen would have as much of a shot at making morphine as the average homebrewer would. I have undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry, and a graduate degree in biology, and I can tell you that your homebrewery and copy of John Palmer’s “How to Brew” will not allow you to become the next Walter White. (And I’m not just saying that to suit my argument.) 

In commercial brewing, sometimes fermenters stand empty. In these cases, a brewery may attempt to contract brew for another brewery. This keeps their brewers working, their facilities utilized, and provides income for the brewery. In no case (that I know of) do beer breweries conduct industrial fermentations on the side. There may be more than one reason for this, but a big reason is that brewery fermentations and industrial fermentations are two different things.

Finally, separating the morphine from the liquid in the fermenter would require lab equipment and knowledge of chemistry that most homebrewers don’t possess.

If you had the right yeast strain, some basic knowledge of biology and chemistry, and the right equipment, producing morphine in a home lab would not be difficult. However, beer brewing equipment is not the right equipment for the job. And the vast majority of information on how to conduct a proper beer fermentation, aimed at producing a tasty beverage, would be nearly useless when approaching an industrial fermentation aimed at producing a high yield of a single metabolite.

I can see the temptation to title news articles, “Home-brewed heroin,” but the connection between homebrewing and the specific equipment and knowledge it would take to conduct an industrial fermentation is thin. 

This recent breakthrough in genetic engineering is likely just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. There are already scientists attempting to engineer yeast to produce THC (the active ingredient in marijuana). Scores of other drugs — both legal and illegal — are sure to follow.

There’s no reason for homebrewers to believe their hobby is going to be impacted by these advances in the next few months. However, in the coming years, it’s not inconceivable that poorly thought-through legislation aimed at stemming the tide of illegal drugs could end up throwing our hobby under the bus. For the time being, all we can really do is sit and wait — and ensure anyone who is willing to listen that we have the skills and equipment to make beer, not morphine.

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