YORK, England, June 27 (UPI) -- Like heroin, all opiate painkillers (Percocet, Vicodin, morphine) are derived from the opioid analgesic alkaloids produced by opium poppy plants (Papaver somniferum). In other words, all opioids begin their life in the field.
But thanks to scientists at the University of York, opiate-based drugs may soon be grown in the lab. In studying the poppy plant's genome, researchers were able to identify one of the key genes responsible for the synthesis of the morphinan class of alkaloids.
The gene, called the STORR gene, is actually multiple genes in one -- a sequence of separate genes fused together over the course of poppy's long evolution. The STORR gene's discovery marks the last ingredient in scientists' quest to engineer morphine in the lab. Researchers may now be able to use the gene sequence to coax opiate production from microbes such as yeast.
STORR's discovery was recently detailed in a new paper published in the journal Science.
"Plants produce an amazing array of natural chemicals," lead researcher Ian Graham, a biologist at York, said in a press release. "Discovery of this STORR gene fusion provides us with new insight into how poppy plants have evolved to produce the most effective painkillers known to man."
"Opium poppy is one of the most important medicinal plants," lead author Thilo Winzer said. "The formation of the fusion protein was probably a key evolutionary event in its ability to synthesize pharmaceutically important morphinan alkaloids."
Though lab-made morphine may soon be a reality, researchers are likely to first develop new commercial poppy breeds -- designer crops for drugs instead of food. Genetically modified poppy plants might yield safer, less-addictive drugs.
But there's also the possibility that such research could be spun off into the kitchens of addicts and drug dealers. Just as people home brew beer using yeast, modified yeast strains could eventually be used to synthesize heroin.
"There are still some technical challenges, but this is a possible security threat," Edward You, an agent with the biological countermeasures unit of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, told the Los Angeles Times.
Researchers are currently considering a variety of safeguard measures to ensure their work is used for good.