Scientists Transform Yeast into Psychedelics

The world is searching for answers to a growing mental health crisis, and manufacturers think they’ve found one innovative solution: mass-producing psilocybin through yeast fermentation. Manufacturers are scrambling to be ready for the day the FDA approves psychedelic medical treatments. Producing psilocybin, the hallucinogenic chemical found in “magic mushrooms,” using standard yeast fermentation may be a sustainable answer to large-scale psilocybin production.

Key takeaways:

Many healthcare practitioners and researchers are losing hope that our current model of treating mental illness as "chemical imbalances" will ever be successful. In the United States, suicide is now the leading cause of death for children aged 10–14 and adults aged 24–34 — a stark reflection of a society's mental wellness.

Many mental health practitioners are hopeful that psychedelics paired closely with talk therapy may treat many mental health conditions, like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and addiction. Researchers are growing hopeful, too, as clinical studies show promising results that psychedelics, like psilocybin, may create transformative experiences and lasting improvements for overall well-being.

Psychedelic advocates are working to legalize the substance and gain FDA approval for use as a medical treatment for psychiatric disorders.

This widespread interest in psychedelics is rousing manufacturers to research sustainable psychedelic production on a large scale for the day treatments achieve FDA approval.

What is psilocybin?

People commonly refer to psilocybin as "magic mushrooms," but it's not the mushroom itself. Instead, it is the psychoactive compound found in certain types of mushrooms. Pharmaceutically speaking, psilocybin is a leading candidate for treating mental disorders with psychedelics.

Psilocybin belongs to the class of chemicals known as tryptamines and is similar in structure to key mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin. It's also structurally similar to dimethyltryptamine (DMT), another commonly known psychedelic.

Interestingly, when you eat food like turkey containing tryptophan, your body breaks it down to tryptamine and uses it to make chemicals like serotonin and melatonin, which are essential for mental wellness.

According to advocates, psilocybin is safer and less addictive than many highly regulated pharmaceuticals like opioids, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines. This lower toxicity means researchers and practitioners report fewer side effects from psilocybin than other mental health drugs.

Hope is growing that psychedelics like psilocybin may be used carefully and successfully to treat various mental health conditions.

How yeast produces psilocybin sustainably

In 2020, the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability (DTU Biosustain) at the Technical University of Denmark announced that a team of scientists produced psilocybin from the same yeast used in beer fermentation, known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. S. cerevisiae is a promising medium for large-scale production.

In nature, psilocybin exists in a particular group of more than 100 mushrooms. For recreational use, people eat magic mushrooms for the psychedelic experience that psilocybin delivers.

For drug manufacturing, however, mushrooms don't contain enough psilocybin to mass-produce therapeutic drugs. Pharmaceutical companies currently produce synthetic psilocybin in a lab for their clinical trials. However, this synthetic process is costly, complicated, and less environmentally friendly, with harmful emissions and by-products.

Producing psilocybin through a biologically based process like yeast fermentation answers several manufacturing problems. The yeast fermentation method offers a simpler and more sustainable way to scale up production to meet the coming demands for psilocybin-based pharmaceutical treatment. It also produces one of the purest forms of psilocybin, reducing the purification costs of other methods.

In 2019, a group of scientists published research in Metabolic Engineering showing successful production of psilocybin with a different fermentation process using the bacteria E. coli. However, the DTU Biosustain team argues that producing psilocybin in bacteria is more complex and costly than using yeast.

In DTU Biosustain's press release, group leader Irina Borodina explains, "Since yeast and Psilocybe mushrooms are quite closely related species, this enzyme [needed to produce psilocybin] works very well in yeast, providing a much more cost-efficient alternative."

Her team further argues that producing psilocybin through yeast is superior in part due to yeast's long history in large-scale beer fermentation. The age-old beer brewing process is well understood, and the ingredients are well-developed, giving DTU Biosustain's team a head start on understanding psilocybin production using yeast.

To produce the psilocybin, the research team took the genes from a mushroom called Psilocybe cubensis that holds instructions for making psilocybin. They then genetically engineered the gene for introduction into yeast. Once integrated into the yeast, the fermentation process produces psilocybin when grown with sugar, tryptophan, and other nutrients.

DTU Biosustain's researchers also hope to a similar yeast fermenting process to produce cannabinoids and other therapeutic compounds. Current cannabis production requires an unsustainable amount of water, land, and energy, unlike the bio-process of fermentation.

Concerns about illicit homebrewed psilocybin

In 2021, a team of researchers expressed concerns about clandestine homebrew operations of psilocybin using bacteria or yeast.

In a simple lab experiment, the researchers created psilocybin using genetically modified E. coli bacteria. They produced the psychedelic compound with the common equipment and supplies used in a typical homebrew environment.

Their findings raise concerns about public safety and protecting psilocybin manufacturing for medical treatments only. The researchers recommend further discussion about proper regulations to control who obtains the biological ingredients, like the genetically altered E. coli, to make psilocybin. Currently, the ingredients are difficult to obtain, but as the industry grows, potential misuse and abuse may also grow.

While the developments surrounding psychedelic research are exciting and promising, experts caution that continued research is still needed to prove safety and effective use with psychedelic-trained therapists.

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