BERKELEY (CBS SF) – Scientists have found a way to produce the psychoactive cannabis compound known as THC, and its therapeutic cousin CBD, from genetically modified beer yeast.

Researchers at the University of Berkeley modified a sugar (galactose) found in brewer’s yeast into tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The chemical THC is what produces the ‘high’ sensation for marijuana users. Patients use CBD for certain therapeutic benefits, including reducing pain and anxiety.

Brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is used for brewing beer, making alcoholic liquors, and baking bread.

The team, lead by synthetic biologist Jay Keasling, made 16 genetic modifications to transform the sugar into THC and CBD. They also created cannabinoids that don’t occur in nature, which if proven to have any therapeutic properties, could be marketed as cannabis-based medicine.

The study was published in the February 27 issue of Nature.

Scientists hope some day to produce these synthetic cannabinoids more cheaply and in greater quantities.

In the early 2000s, Keasling’s team engineered yeast to synthetically create the anti-malarial drug known as artemisinin.

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