Bioethics Blogs

Strange brew: opiates from yeast

A recent series of papers have constructed a biochemical pathway that allows yeast to produce opiates. It is not quite a sugar-to-heroin home brew yet, but putting together the pieces looks fairly doable in the very near term. I think I called the news almost exactly five years ago on this blog.

People, including the involved researchers, are concerned and think regulation is needed. It is an interesting case of dual-use biotechnology. While making opiates may be somewhat less frightening than making pathogens, it is still a problematic use of biotechnology: millions of people are addicted, and making it easier for them to get access would worsen the problem. Or would it?

Harms of heroin

The basic ethical issue is drug addiction (there might also be the potential plight of outcompeted poppy-growers and drug smugglers, but let’s leave that aside for now). I suspect there might be puritan views that gaining pleasure from mere chemistry is inherently a bad kind of pleasure lurking in the background, but as far as I know few defend this view loudly: it is the bad effects on health and ability to live a good life that are generally agreed to represent morally or practically relevant reasons not to use drugs.

Currently the anti-opiate approach is to restrict access to opiates via regulated legal manufacturing, and attempts to stamp out illegal production and distribution. The arrival of decentralized and localized production seems likely to reduce the direct cost of production (no poppy field needed), as well as reduce the cost increase caused by the policing of illicit production and distribution since it would likely become less effective and the supply chains could become far shorter.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.