Bioethics Blogs

Is home-brew heroin really just a beer away? Reflections on regulation of yeast-based production of opiates.

Tania Bubela discusses the dangers of and need for regulating the production of yeast-based opiates.


In a May 2015 issue of Nature, two colleagues from MIT and I published a commentary on synthetic biology production of opiates. The commentary was given a catchy title by the journal (Regulate ‘home-brew’ opiates), subsequently translated by Nature News to: “Engineered yeast paves way for home-brew heroin”. The home-brew heroin story rapidly spread to media around the world. It was picked up by outlets from The New York Times and The New Yorker, to national radio stations in Canada, New Zealand and Germany, and to local newspapers and television. It was covered by lay journalists with headlines such as “Scientists: Gangs to have a shot at home-brew heroin” (The Australian) and by experienced science journalists in New Scientist and Scientific American. Here, I reflect on the substance of the original commentary so we can retreat from the alarmist media-coverage and enable discussion to develop a nuanced regulatory response.

An 18th Century Chinese opium den

The commentary arose from Ken Oye (MIT) and my longstanding collaborations on ethical, legal and social issues with two synthetic biology research teams in the US and Canada, respectively. The lead researchers of these teams, John Dueber (University of California, Berkeley) and Vincent Martin (Concordia University, Montreal), sought our input on two impending scientific publications that described the possibility of a synthesis of the biochemical pathway from glucose in yeast to opiates such as codeine, morphine, and heroin.

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.