Step Aside Beer: Genetically Modified Yeast Now Produces THC and CBD

Researchers from UC Berkeley have succeeded in producing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) from bioengineered yeast. Until now, the mind-altering substances in marijuana known as THC and non-psychoactive CBD, were solely derived from the plant itself.

You may know brewer’s yeast as the component that is responsible for turning sugars into alcohol during the process of beer making. Now, through the injection of genes from a cannabis sativa plant into the same common brewer’s yeast, the yeast began producing cannabinoids. The cannabinoids included THC, CBD, and even unfamiliar cannabinoids that have never been found in the plant itself.

The research stemmed from a larger movement in hopes to better understand the powerful abilities that marijuana possesses while also uncovering alternative avenues of producing cannabinoids.  From elongated periods of time, water, and immense amounts of energy extracting specific cannabinoids from marijuana flower can be daunting.

This new research possesses enormous benefits for the rapidly rising marijuana industry. Now legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, the consumption of marijuana can now be smoked, vaped, or consumed via a range of edibles. The use of CBD  and THC is on the rise for not only recreational use, but for medicinal properties as well.

Medications containing THC have been approved for consumption to aid in reduce nausea for chemotherapy patients, and to increase appetite for patients with AIDS. CBD is increasingly being utilized for treatment in patients suffering from anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, and children who suffer epileptic seizures.

cannabinoid pathway yeast to cannabis

Photo Credit: UC Berkeley

From Yeast to CBD and THC

To yield these results, depending on whether producing THC or CBD and the enzymes they carry, researchers used one of two different yeasts. Both yeasts however, carry the important cannabis gene that produces CBGA. CBGA is the essential component in creating cannabinoids. The non-intoxicating CBGA acts as the starting component in the creation of CBD and THC. Specific enzymes within the plant will break the CBGA down and after being exposed to ultraviolet light or heat, become the well-known cannabinoids, THC and CBD.

To produce THC, the yeast produces CBGA which then develops into THCA. When making CBD, the yeast uses its own enzyme which turns the CBGA into CBDA. Once heat is applied to the THCA and CBDA, you’re left with THC and CBD.

Instead of the yeast turning sugar into alcohol, researchers inserted over a dozen copies of genes used by the marijuana plant into the yeast to synthesize the cannabinoids. Once yeast producing CBGA was successful, researchers added additional enzyme allowing the CBGA to covert to THCA, and another separate enzyme to create CBDA.

A High Number of Benefits

The research team at UC Berkeley is the first known team to develop such a process solely relying on the sugar components in yeast. Claiming his yeast can make cannabinoids from galactose alone without requiring additional, more costly ingredients.   

With more than 100 different known cannabinoids thus far, studying marijuana plants can be complicated and costly. The groundbreaking study by UC Berkeley allows for an equally affordable and easy way to produce the same pure cannabinoids that are extracted from buds on marijuana plants.

Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, bioengineering, and scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory states, “For the consumer, the benefits are high quality, low cost CBD and THC: you get exactly what you want from yeast, it’s safer, and a more environmentally friendly way to produce cannabinoids.” Keating believes the cost is competitive, if not better than the current plant derived cannabinoids.

Cannabis Research

Aside from the affordability and efficiency of this discovery, Keasling mentions another perk of this exciting find. “The possibility of new therapies based on novel cannabinoids: the rare ones that are nearly impossible to get from the plant, or the unnatural ones which are impossible to get from the plant,” Keating states. Researchers can now study the components both together and isolated from one another without having to sift through the hundreds of additional compounds that are found within flower.

The cannabinoids made from the yeasts are the same cannabinoids derived from the plant. Aside from understanding what the newfound cannabinoids may be potentially useful for, researchers can now study how cannabinoids within the plant may have interacted with one another (otherwise known as the entourage effect. For example, CBD seemingly reduces the psychoactive effects of THC.

Energy Efficiency

The ability to create THC and CBD from yeast also allows for energy efficiency. A big deal for the environment as cultivating yeast requires significantly less energy usage in comparison to planting, growing, and harvesting cannabinoids from cannabis plants. It’s an overall safer and environmentally friendly way to harvest cannabinoids. A 2012 study suggested an alarming three percent of California’s overall total electricity usage was used to grow cannabis alone.


Another advancement from the study’s findings is manufacturers not having to worry about substances becoming contaminated.  “Being able to produce these substances in a way that’s uncontaminated with THC is a pretty valuable thing,” says Keasling. Because plants yield such small amounts of the more rare substances, often when able to successfully be extracted, the compounds will be contaminated with traces of their cousin counterparts, THC and CBD.


The future intention that comes with this new found production from yeast to THC and CBD allows for numerous consumer benefits as well. Keasling says, “For the consumer, the benefits are high-quality, low cost CBD and THC: you get exactly what you want from yeast.” Another perk is the ability to tailor cannabis products to consumer’s preferences. The ability for customization may allow for specific ratios of CBD and THC in products such as tinctures.

The uncovering of the new novel cannabinoids allows for affordable yet efficient research. Until now, the understanding of these cannabinoids have proven hard to study. Extracting them directly from cannabis has posed difficulties due to them being produced in such small quantities.

The ability to produce cannabinoids from yeast will now allow access for researchers to dive deeper into studying the substances functions. From potential new strains, research discoveries, and therapeutic usages, there’s no telling where this exciting development can lead the cannabis industry.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out The Benefits of a CBD Massage.

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