We can now add opiates to the list of things that yeast is capable of producing.

For the first time, lab-engineered sugar successfully produced hydrocodone, a common opiate painkiller. Another strain produced thebaine, an ingredient for oxycodone. 

This discovery could completely revolutionize the way drug companies make painkillers. But it also opens the door to do-it-yourself manufacturing of heroin.

The findings, published in Science, could significantly reduce the cost of opiate production, which leaves 5.5 billion people without proper access to pain medication.

The strains used to produce the opiate compounds were made using molecules taken from a variety of sources including rats, poppies, and other bacteria.

The quantities produced so far are so small that it would take 4,400 gallons of engineered yeast to make one dose of opiate medication. This gives researchers time to hone in on how to mass produce the quantities, and keep the manufacturing skills off the black market.

Facts about opiate production:

 Opium use dates back to the Neolithic Age. About 75% of the world's opium supply comes from Afghanistan.

 Prescription opiate use has risen significantly since 1999, around the time that OxyContin was introduced to the market.

Cover image: Wikimedia Commons