Researchers from the University of York in collaboration with the GlaxoSmithKline Australia pharmaceutical company have discovered the morphine gene in poppies. The study was published in the journal Science.
Morphine is the most important ingredient in prescription drugs. This opiate can relieve both chronic and acute pain. It can be administered orally or injected intramuscularly or intravenously.
The researchers discovered that the morphine gene which is called STORR can only be found in certain species of poppies, namely those who produce morphinans. This species of poppies came to exist millions of years ago when two other genes came together. The genes encoded reductase enzymes and oxidase. According to the researchers this gene fusion has the key role in morphine production.
This discovery could help researchers grow poppy fields which produce an increased quantity of opiate. Special legal fields are already used for producing morphine for pharmaceutical use. However the discovery of this gene can also make it easier for illegal drug-[ushers to manufacture heroin at home. The producer could make large amounts of drug with a reduced cost and there would be no need to import poppy opiates.
Another study published a month ago explained how engineered yeast can be used to turn glucose into morphine. After this many people became afraid that the spreading of heroin on the market could lead to a drug epidemic.
The researchers made the discovery after they found out that some poppy plants could not produce morphine or codeine. Instead they accumulated the (S) – reticuline compound. These plants also showed mutations at the level of the STORR gene which blocked morphine production.
Researchers believe that this discovery could make possible the breeding of poppy varieties which produce anti-cancer compound noscapine. The discovery of the STORR gene is the missing piece in a set of genes necessary for the genetic engineering of morphine in microbes like yeast. It remains to be seen whether this can compete with plant based production on the market.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Thilo Winzer remarked:
“Opium poppy is one of the most important medicinal plants. The formation of the fusion protein was probably a key evolutionary event in its ability to synthesise pharmaceutically important morphinan alkaloids.”
Update: We have amended the initial typing errors and thank our readers for the prompt and considerate heads-up.
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