Engineered yeast have been used to tackle the scarcity problem in other ways before. In the 1960s, researchers discovered that the taxanes from Pacific yew tree bark can fight cancer. All well and good, except for the Pacific yew, which conservationists feared would go extinct in the hands of an eager medical establishment. But as with this cannabinoid-producing yeast, researchers engineered microbes to help make the drug—deforestation-free.
And this doesn’t stop at cannabinoids. What Raber and other researchers are pursuing is essentially a reconstruction of cannabis’ chemical profile. Terpenes, for example, are what give weed its characteristic smell, yet you’ll find these across the plant kingdom: Limonene isn’t super abundant in cannabis, but it is an abundant product of the citrus industry. The idea is that instead of going through the grief of extracting small amounts of limonene from a cannabis plant, you can get it from lemons instead.
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Cannabinoid-producing yeast may also make it easier to study cannabis in the first place. We’re talking about a wildly complicated plant here, with more than 100 different known cannabinoids so far. Some of these compounds are more prevalent than others—modern cannabis strains are packed with THC, because cultivators have bred strains to be ever more intoxicating over the years. But a cannabinoid like tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCV, shows up in much lower amounts. “Now we're going to have a handle on being able to produce these things in a pure way, and in a relatively simple way, that maybe we can start to test what their functions are,” says Keasling.
We as a species would be miserable without yeast. Baker's yeast has given us leavened bread for thousands of years. And I don’t even want to begin to imagine a world without beer and wine, which rely on yeast to convert sugar into alcohol.
“Can you keep making it highly concentrated, or does it become toxic to the organisms that you're actually using to produce it, and therefore you have a limit?” asks Jeff Raber, CEO of the Werc Shop, a lab that’s picking apart the components of cannabis.
Having a vat of yeast churning out pure, non-psychoactive CBD promises to massively simplify production. “Being able to produce that in a way that's uncontaminated with THC is a pretty valuable thing,” says Keasling. Especially since the FDA might want to have a word with you if you accidentally dose patients with a psychoactive substance.
Both CBD and THC have value.
This means that while the cannabinoids may be powerful on their own, mixing the two can produce different effects. Some of the therapeutic benefits of CBD may also be amplified by the presence of even a little THC.
For a lot of patients, one of the major challenges with cannabis is its mind-bending nature. CBD is often seen as a solution because the cannabinoid does not produce the euphoric qualities of THC.
High potency cannabis is a new phenomenon. Just a couple of decades ago, THC content was infinitesimal. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that samples sold illicitly in the 1990s featured about 3.7 percent THC.
Why you should add a little THC to your CBD
Decades of ignoring CBD came with some consequences. Cannabis cultivars without any CBD are missing one of the powerful healing properties of the plant.
However, the theory of whole-plant medicine suggests that opting for full-plant extracts and flowers containing a wide variety of cannabis compounds is preferable to using just one compound alone.
It’s now accepted that combining CBD and THC reduces the psychoactive side effects of the latter cannabinoid. CBD can also lessen the sedative and appetite-inducing effects of THC. This type of interaction between CBD and THC is known as the entourage effect.
The benefits of whole plant medicine
Further evidence suggests that combining CBD and THC can improve the pain-fighting properties of the compounds.
However, with all the hype around CBD, it’s important not to forget about its close relative, THC. In fact, there is reason to believe that, for some conditions, CBD may be most beneficial when consumed with a little THC.