January 3, 2019
As more people are turning to cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD, to treat common conditions, they are discovering the cloudy haze of legal issues surrounding the cannabis compound. While hemp is now legalized thanks to the recent passage of the nationwide Farm Bill, cannabis is only legal in certain states and can’t be sent through the mail. But, there may be other ways consumers can get their CBD.
For some time now, scientists have been able to chemically create CBD in the lab. However, the man-made version of the compound can come with a hefty price tag. Some even cost more than $150 per 10 milligrams, and some conditions require consumers to take hundreds of milligrams to get any results. Those who buy this synthetic CBD also need a Schedule IDEA license to do so, and the substance is technically not meant for human consumption.
But there are others who are looking at ways to manipulate organisms to produce CBD that doesn’t involve expensive chemistry experiments.
Hops aren’t just for drinking
One possible solution comes from a plant other than cannabis or hemp — hops, which are the flowers of Humulus lupulus plant and primarily used to give flavor to beers. Peak Health and ImmunAG, companies that sell CBD products aimed at relieving pain and improving consumers’ lives, say they’ve figured out how to make the only CBD product not sourced from cannabis.
The product is an extract of the Kriya brand Humulus plant. Similar to hemp extract, the companies say that this plant has a high concentration of CBD. It’s not clear if there is any data that supports this claim.
Yeast, a cheap way to get your CBD
We use yeast for a lot of things, and it turns out that we can use it for one more. While it doesn’t naturally contain cannabinoids, if you play with it a bit, it’s possible.
Yeast can yield cannabinoids like CBD, THC or others, as well as terpenes, that you would find in the cannabis plant if you manipulate its DNA. Librede, a company based in California, currently holds a patent as well as federal funding for this technology, which it plans to use to produce mass amounts of cannabinoids from yeast.
The process is simple. Take some bioengineered yeast, add some sugar, and let it do its thing. Perhaps the best part of this discovery is the potential cost benefits. Librede estimates they will be able to make one gram of CBD for $0.20, which is far less than the average cost of CBD extracted from naturally cultivated hemp or cannabis.
This could also beneficially impact the environment, as typical cultivation techniques require providing cannabis plants with large amounts of water and light, which is often done using heat lamps indoors. Some growers also use pesticides and fertilizers that can impact the environment through run-off.
How does this work?
Stay with me, because you’re about to read a lot of science.
To make cannabinoids, you essentially need two things:
1. The precursor molecules that are the foundation of cannabinoids. THC and CBD are made up of the same ones, but they are arranged differently.
2. Enzymes that will convert those molecules into a particular cannabinoid.
To make cannabinoids out of hops or yeast, you need to be able to make cannabigerolic acid. Once you have that, you add the correct enzymes to turn it into the acid form THC, CBD or another cannabinoid or terpene, and then add heat to turn it into the cannabinoid or terpene we know as the ones we consume.
To get cannabigerolic acid, you need the hops or yeast to produce two things: hexanoic acid and geranyl diphosphate. The former is quite common in plants and will eventually become olivetolic acid, which will then synthesize with the geranyl diphosphate to become cannabigerolic acid.
But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. No plants other than cannabis have the right DNA to naturally produce the necessary enzymes.
Gene editing and CBD
But now, bioengineers have enabled yeast to produce the ingredients that are needed to make cannabinoids. Engineered yeast can produce hexanoic acid, which will turn into olivetolic acid, as well as an enzyme that converts cannabigerolic acid to THC acid. Once you have the acid, you just heat it up to get regular THC.
Librede which has engineered this development, says this process takes less than one week.
Thanks to a gene editing technique called CRISPR, which was recently used to edit the genomes of babies in China, hops can also make cannabinoids. CRISPR lets you cut out a piece of DNA and replace it with another piece of DNA, so you could replace DNA in hops with DNA that contains the enzymes needed to make cannabigerolic acid.
Whether this manipulation of cannabinoid production will effect CBD’s medicinal properties is not yet known. Current research shows that cannabidiol extracted from whole cannabis plants that are CBD-rich strains are better at relieving inflammation and pain than just CBD on its own. This could be due to the entourage effect, which theorizes that the cannabinoids and terpenes work best when they are working in tandem, and supports using CBD that has small amounts of THC in it as well. However, this research is promising and shows that perhaps, with more time and research, we can make the perfect cannabidiol in the lab that’s specific to certain conditions.
As you can see, hemp and cannabis aren’t the only two players in town when it comes to cultivation and extracting CBD. While additional research is needed, scientists and horticulturists are making great strides when it comes to genetically modifying and growing plants with various CBD profiles that may one day offer cost-effective and customized solutions to a growing number of health issues, both stateside and abroad.
And as new research emerges regarding the potential uses, applications, and benefits of CBD as a therapeutic alternative to harsh chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs, we expect demand to continue to surge, furthering this agenda for decades to come.