Instead of growing cannabis and extracting cannabinoids from the whole plant, biosynthesis allows processors to use yeast strains to create cannabinoids that can be infused into a number of products. If this technology becomes scalable, it may mean that the current industry is much larger—and far less sustainable—than it needs to be.

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The Difference Between Synthetic and Biosynthetic Cannabinoids

The researchers who discovered biosynthesis of cannabinoids in yeast conducted the process with natural ingredients to create natural products. They engineered the yeast’s metabolism so that, rather than converting sugar into alcohol, it would convert sugar into CBGA (cannabigerolic acid). CBGA is the mother of all cannabinoids, so once they were able to create it, the pathway to creating other cannabinoids became accessible.

Synthetic cannabinoids are created with a variety of illegal, unregulated chemicals that can have a range of effects on consumers. K2/Spice, for example, is dried up plant matter covered in man-made chemicals that were made to imitate the effects of THC. There is no specific recipe for K2 because the black-market chemists working on these materials are throwing things together hoping they will get consumers high. While K2 does trigger the same receptors as THC, the physiological/psychological response is far more intense and can have devastating and even fatal consequences.    

Growing Cannabis Takes a Heavy Toll on the Environment

While the cannabis plant has created novel therapies and an entire industry, it has not done so without a significant cost to the environment. The energy required for production can cost the US as much as $6 billion a year. To paint a clear picture, there is not a significant difference in carbon emissions between the production of 1 kilogram of cannabis and 3 million U.S. cars.

Energy is not the only area of waste in the cannabis industry.  Both indoor and outdoor grows have extreme water demands. A 2014 study of the impact of cannabis cultivation on three watersheds located in California’s Emerald Triangle revealed just how breathtaking the numbers can get. Researchers discovered that “each plant consumes 6 gallons of water a day.  At that rate, the plants were siphoning off 180,000 gallons of water per day in each watershed—altogether more than 160 Olympic sized swimming pools over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants.” This eventually caused legal action limiting water usage in California, and it’s likely that other states will implement sustainability laws to regulate cannabis production as well.

outdoor marijuana farm iStock / CaraMaria

Biosynthesis is a Win for Sustainability 

Biosynthesis allows scientists to create exactly the cannabinoids they want in a far more sustainable way.

“For the consumer, the benefits are a high-quality, low-cost CBD and THC: you get exactly what you want from yeast,” explained Jay Keasling, UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering. “It is a safer, more environmentally friendly way to produce cannabinoids.”

Because biosynthesis does not require cultivating a cannabis grow to yield cannabinoids, the technology circumvents the sustainability issue almost entirely.

2018 showed that the cannabis industry is turning toward sustainability. Massachusetts passed a law regulating lighting power density, the first rule of its kind in the industry. DesignLights Consortium, a non-profit lighting efficiency regulating organization, released a horticultural lighting rating the industry can use to guide its lighting purchases. Major cannabis events including MJBizConNEXT made energy conservation an important part of their conferences’ agendas.

This shift toward sustainability is a necessary response to the very real human-created problems the planet is reacting to. As the impacts of global warming and climate change become increasingly terrifying, disruptive technologies like biosynthesis of cannabinoids in yeast show us a better way.

Are Cannabinoids Created through the Biosynthesis of Yeast Good for Consumers?

Biosynthesized cannabinoids may not only be good for consumers—they may be better than cannabinoids extracted from the cannabis plant. The cannabinoids extracted from yeast biosynthesis tend to be purer than whole-plant cannabinoids, which means that they are also more potent.

Biosynthesis in yeast also provides an advantage that is either rarely or never reaped from a cannabis harvest. Biosynthesis allows scientists to create cannabinoids that are extremely difficult to study because of their tiny quantities in cannabis plants. Even more interesting are the cannabinoids created by yeast that do not exist in cannabis. Professor Keasling mentioned “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.”

In addition to higher potency, manufacturers and consumers don’t have to worry about contamination from other cannabinoids. For example, if a manufacturer wants to create a CBD only product, they can be confident that biosynthesis will deliver only CBD.

Isolated Cannabinoids or Whole Plant Cannabis?

Yeast in petri dish, Microbiology for education in laboratories. iStock / Sinhyu

The clearest disadvantage of consuming cannabinoids created through the biosynthesis of yeast is that they are consumed in isolation rather than in conditions that amplify the entourage effect. Some researchers believe that whole plant cannabis products offers the best health results because of the way that the compounds within the plant—cannabinoids and terpenes—interact with one another. Their synergy may create positive health effects that are impossible to achieve when the compounds are separated from each other.

Cannabinoids isolated through biosynthesis are natural—they are actual cannabinoids rather than synthesized chemicals used in dangerous drugs like Spice and K2. They are also more potent than natural cannabinoids, and because they can be essentially “made to order,” they are also purer and in greater quantities than what nature would produce. Finally, they may be a more sustainable option because it does not require massive, energy and water intensive growing sites to create them.

On the other hand, whole plant cannabis extracts are potentially enhanced by their organic, synergistic relationship with the chemical compounds naturally housed in the cannabis plant. And there is a much greater body of evidence supporting the use of whole plant cannabis than there is cannabinoids biosynthesized in yeast.

Whether one is better than the other remains to be determined, but the questions and answers presented by biosynthesis are a fascinating addendum to the cannabis industry as it stands today.