Scientists from GlaxoSmithKline have cracked the gene secret of poppies which lets them produce morphine as reported in the journal Science on Thursday. This discovery is hoped to shine light on new and improved methods of producing the important drug without the need to rely on the cultivation of poppies.
The latest finding follows recent success in engineering brewer's yeast to synthesize opiates such as morphine and codeine from a common sugar, boosting the prospect of "home-brew" drug supply.
But whether making morphine in bubbling vats of yeast will be commercially viable -- either for drug companies or criminal gangs -- is far from certain, since poppies are very efficient natural factories.
"Poppies are not going to be displaced overnight by any stretch of the imagination," said Ian Graham, a professor at the University of York, who worked on the latest gene discovery.
While extracting opiates from genetically engineered yeast is now a real possibility, he sees more immediate benefits from applying the latest knowledge to developing better poppy plants.
"Having our hands on this gene allows us to develop molecular breeding approaches to creating bespoke poppy varieties that make different compounds," he told Reuters.
That could lead to agricultural production of drugs such as noscapine, a cough-suppressant that may also fight cancer, as well as improved plant strains with higher yields of morphine.
The University of York team worked on the project with scientists from GlaxoSmithKline. The drugmaker has long been a major supplier of opiates but agreed in March to sell its Australian-based business to India's Sun Pharmaceutical Industries.