The Cannabinoid Factories of the Future
Cannabis plants produce hundreds of interesting compounds, but could microorganisms provide a more efficient means for their mass production?
Matthew Hallam | | Longer Read
Synthia (formally known as Mycoplasma laboratorium) was the prodigal child of synthetic biology – a living cell comprising the outer membrane of a hollowed-out Mycoplasma capricolum and a Mycoplasma mycoides genome synthesized completely from digitized sequence information (1). This science may sound more aligned with the plot of a Philip K. Dick novel than reality, but synthetic biology was pushing these boundaries as early as 2010.
Since then, researchers have extended the frontiers of this novel field. E. coli cells have been engineered with the ability to produce synthetic proteins from a genetic code containing manmade nucleotide bases – essentially re-sketching the blueprints of life – and we have also equipped living cells with computational capabilities, such as logic, memory and problem-solving. Though impressive, these breakthroughs tell us very little about what synthetic biology is – or what it has to offer in practical terms.
Simply put, synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field that applies engineering principles to the construction of biological systems that fulfil prespecified functions (for example, the synthesis of fuels or vaccines) based on carefully designed genetic circuits. The gene editing approaches central to this field are adaptable, and are being harnessed to engineer microorganisms able to rival classical ways of providing commodities in many spheres.
In the medical cannabis industry, for example, microbes have been engineered with the capacity to produce a number of cannabis compounds – largely cannabinoids like CBD and cannabigerol (CBG), but also a number of further substances. Yet, these compounds represent only a fraction of the potentially therapeutic compounds found in the plant. In this sense (and others yet to be discussed), we have merely scratched the surface of synthetic biology’s potential in this space.
The medical cannabis community has taken small steps towards a biosynthetic future – but what giant leap is needed before we usher in the age of cannabis’ synthetic overlords? And why would we bother in the first place?
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