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severalog

Yeast, drugs, and copies of copies

Harry Caufield

Read a Nature piece this morning about yeast-based synthesis of opiates.* It won't be long before morphine may be predominantly produced using yeast rather than the opium poppy. This is a significant feat for synthetic biology on its own, but it will be very interesting to see what the long-term effects are.

The authors discuss a few security concerns. No one really wants to see more illicit opiate trade in the world, especially if it's funding organized crime and the like. I became a bit worried at the suggestion that opiate-producing yeast strains should bear DNA watermarks in their genome. As whole-genome sequencing gets less expensive, it should be perfectly feasible to screen for multiple watermarks even if they differ slightly in sequence, but the easiest way to find said watermarks would be through an automated approach. It could look something like the Counterfeit Deterrence System present in Photoshop or other software designed to detect patterns hidden in banknotes. Sequencing isn't counterfeiting, though. I'm worried that a home-use sequencer could detect a DNA sequence specific to opiate-producing yeast strains, surreptitiously report the result to an enforcement agency of choice, and contribute to a new wave of privacy concerns at the very least. 

OK, so worried may be a strong word here. The War on Drugs just doesn't have a great history as it is. I hope that new developments in synthetic biology don't get added to its list of victims.

*I saw some complaints on Twitter about how the title of this article (or more problematically, the title of this PBS piece) implies that home brewing of opiates is currently possible. No one has shown this can be done yet. It's certainly feasible, but yeast strains allowing for efficient home production of morphine just don't exist yet.