Opiates for the masses may not be far off. Scientists have figured out two of the final steps in the chain of chemical reactions that synthesize morphine in the opium poppy.
Pinpointing the cellular workhorses and the genes involved in making morphine may lead to new production methods for the drug and its chemical cousins such as codeine, oxycodone and buprenorphine, scientists report in a paper published online March 14 in Nature Chemical Biology.
Morphine and its relatives, widely used as painkillers in developed countries, are fairly expensive and are often taken for extended periods of time. The new research may lead to better ways of engineering yeast or other microbes to make these painkillers — perhaps skirting the social and political morass of agricultural poppy production, the source of heroin.