Researchers and policymakers have raised concerns over the possibility that the impending development of a yeast that produces morphine could make it easy for people to manufacture highly addictive opiates themselves.

Fears over "home brew" narcotics appeared to be more concerning now that a group of researchers has announced  that they have found a gene in poppies that play a crucial role in the production of morphine in the plants. The discovery could hasten the efforts of scientists  to engineer a morphine-producing yeast.

Researchers have already identified the genes responsible for the process that converts glucose to morphine in poppies except the gene that is responsible for the conversion of a chemical known as (S)-reticuline into one dubbed (R)-reticuline.

The researchers introduced random mutations into a number of poppy plants and eventually found three that did not produce morphine but accumulated (S)-reticuline, which suggests that these plants may have gene mutations that allow the conversion to (R)-reticuline to occur.

All three plants were found to have mutation in one gene, which the scientist confirmed to be the one they were searching for. They called the gene "STORR," for (S)- to (R)-reticuline. 

"Metabolite analysis of mutant alleles and heterologous expression demonstrate that the P450 module is responsible for the conversion of (S)-reticuline to 1,2-dehydroreticuline while the oxidoreductase module converts 1,2-dehydroreticuline to (R)-reticuline rather than functioning as a P450 redox partner," wrote  study researcher Ian Graham, from the University of York, and colleagues.

The researchers' discovery, which was reported in the journal Science on June 25, could pave way to a better understanding of the biochemistry of poppies and this could help researchers fine-tune and manufacture usefull poppy-derived compounds such as painkillers that could lead to safer and more effective therapies.

"The publication of this gene provides the missing link for the production of morphine in yeast -- there's no doubt about it," Graham said. "I think it's only a matter of time before there is a proof-of-concept demonstration in yeast that this can happen."

The development, however, could also make it easier for people to start producing morphine on their own, which could localize the production of opiates and hook up more people on drugs such as heroin.

Jeff Comparin, from the Drug Enforcement Administration's laboratory in Virginia, however, said that until a morphine producing yeast strain becomes commonly available, the agency does not perceive an imminent threat.

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