The extraction of cannabinoids from cannabis plants is a huge and growing industry. From edibles to portable vape cartridges, cannabinoid extraction makes all kinds of products possible. There are several different methods of extracting cannabinoids from the plant. But all of them are resource-intensive processes requiring large quantities of raw cannabis.
But what if it were possible to extract cannabinoids without growing cannabis plants at all? That’s exactly the idea behind a breakthrough innovation from the bioengineering firm Intrexon Corporation. Today, the company announced it had made major strides in its project to produce cannabinoids with yeast.
Biotech Firm Wants to “Brew” Weed with Yeast
Intrexon Corporation is a Hungarian bioengineering giant based in Budapest. Through a synthetic biology approach they call “Better DNA,” Intrexon creates biologically-based products for industries. They work with companies to design and develop complex biological systems that improve the quality and performance of living cells. And the company wants to develop technologies to produce cannabinoids for the medical cannabis industry.
But Intrexon isn’t developing a new strain of cannabis or a new way of extracting cannabinoids from marijuana plants. Instead, they’re using the single-cell microorganisms of the genus saccharomyces, or yeast.
Intrexon says it has bioengineered a strain of yeast that produces cannabinoids for medical uses, like CBD, THCV, and others. In other words, the company is using the tiny microbes to actually make cannabinoids, rather than extract them from cannabis plants.
The process involves fermentation. So, in essence, Intrexon is “brewing” cannabinoids with a proprietary strain of microbes it developed. Furthermore, Intrexon says their DNA-engineered yeast strain is versatile enough to produce different cannabinoids. These include cannabinoids with high therapeutic indexes but that only exist in trace amounts in the plant, making their commercial extraction too costly. The process could also synthesize new, “designer” cannabinoids.
Will Biotech Make Growing Cannabis Irrelevant
Of course, Intrexon says their cannabinoid-producing yeast has several advantages over plant-based extraction. In addition to cost savings and reducing resource consumption, the company says their microbial platform can be tailored to the production of specific target cannabinoids. “Through our capabilities and experience, we expect to optimize [yeast] strains to produce specific cannabinoids that may be commercialized in the coming years,” said Chris Savile, PhD, Executive Director of Commercial Operations at Intrexon.
And today, the company marked an important milestone on the road toward that vision. According to a press release, Intrexon is closer than ever to reaching its goal of producing pure cannabinoids at under $1,000 per kilogram. The announcement has sent Intrexon shares (NYSE:XON) skyrocketing nearly 30 percent today.
While bioengineering cannabinoids may sound like something out of speculative fiction, more biotech firms are working on ways to produce what’s valuable about cannabis without growing the plants themselves. The Boston-based biotech firm Gingko Bioworks, Inc. recently announced its plans to produce rare cannabinoids directly from plant DNA.
As many cannabis cultivators have experienced, extreme weather events, fires, regulatory changes and many other factors can impact cannabis farmers’ bottom line. Plus, the medical cannabis industry continues demanding more exacting standards from cannabis products. Hence, eliminating the need to actually grow cannabis plants is fast-becoming an attractive prospect for some in the industry.