Unlike other drugs, cannabis cultivation doesn’t require a doctorate in medicine or science. For the most part, it’s treated as a form of agriculture, but that may soon change. Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based company that refers to themselves as “the organism company,” landed a $100-million-dollar deal with one of Canada’s most prominent cannabis companies, Cronos Group. Ginkgo’s goal is to produce CBD and THC, the active ingredients found in marijuana, from a genetically modified microorganism, like yeast. The company hopes to produce a vast array of valuable compounds of greater purity for a lower cost than cannabis plants can.
Ginkgo plans to modify yeast or another organism’s DNA so that the enzymes can convert a combination of sugar, nitrogen, vitamins, and other ingredients into CBD, THC, and other chemicals found in cannabis. Rather than grown agriculturally on farms, these compounds will be manufactured in large metal vats, similar to those used in breweries.
This type of technology and advancement has immense value in the economy. Ginkgo has also announced partnerships they’ve entered into with non-cannabis-related businesses, such as ADM, Ajinomoto, and Cargill and Bayer Crop Science. Most of their projects within these partnerships are confidential.
Currently, scientists are mostly concerned with the two most common cannabinoids found in marijuana: THC and CBD, but the creation of those synthetically could lead to the ability to create those cannabinoids found in trace amounts to research their potential medicinal benefit.
Cellibre, Ginkgo’s San Diego-based competitor, boasts that they plan to use microorganisms to manufacture cannabinoids in a more efficient way than Ginkgo. Ben Chiarelli, the CEO of Cellibre, compared the process to how insulin is created in the pancreases of livestock before it’s synthesized from E. coli.
This discovery is largely due to the growing interest in cannabis since the legal status has become more unique and less clearcut. Thanks to this growing interest and the new flexibility in legislation, there are far more opportunities available for scientists to apply existing science, like genetic modification, to cannabis plants.