Greenhouses and plants are soon going to be outdated in the cannabis industry. Synthetic biology allows scientists to "brew" cannabinoids, just like how breweries brew beer. Getty
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Forget The Grow Room And The Plant: Companies Can Now Brew Cannabis Like Beer

The cannabis industry is booming. And it is not the work of the Grateful Dead-loving, tie-dyed wearing stoners, it is another unexpected demographic. According to a 2019 CFN study, women are the fastest-growing consumers of cannabis. Baby boomers over-50 and women are driving the surge in cannabidiol (CBD) oil consumption.

Most cannabis is grown in greenhouses under grow-lights or outdoors in fields. The most well-known ingredients – cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – are extracted from plants. But now the greenhouses, and the plant itself – are no longer needed. Companies are using synthetic biology to “brew” cannabis, just like breweries brew beer.

Changing attitudes toward cannabis and an increase in knowledge of our body’s endocannabinoid system are driving the industry’s growth. A 2019 Arcview Research and BDS Analytics report projects global legal cannabis to grow 36% in 2019. The industry is expected to grow to $40 billion by 2024. Even soft-drink giants like PepsiCo and beer, wine, and spirits companies like Constellation Brands are getting in on the action. They are creating CBD-containing soft drinks and marijuana-containing beers.

Why cannabis?

The cannabis plant has nearly 500 active ingredients – more than 100 different cannabinoids. The best known, THC, causes the plant’s intoxicating effects. The other compound that seems to be everywhere these days is CBD. It is touted as a magical elixir for a variety of health issues and is available in soft drinks, tinctures, and even pharmaceuticals. There are many other less abundant cannabinoids in the plant. But most of those compounds are challenging to get the plant to produce or to extract in large quantities.


To cannabis users, the thought of replacing greenhouses and the cannabis plant itself with genes, microorganisms and brewing may seem odd. However, synthetic biology allows for pharmaceutical-grade cannabinoids faster, cheaper and more specialized. Getty

Brewing cannabis

However, with synthetic biology scientists can brew these compounds in other organisms such as yeast, allowing for the creation of pharmaceutical-grade cannabinoids. Furthermore, it is a faster, cheaper and more specialized production of these compounds.

Companies are already doing this. LAVVAN, a newly formed company committed to delivering superior cannabinoids at reduced cost. Organism engineering company, Ginkgo Bioworks signed a $122 million deal with Canadian pot powerhouse, Cronos Group (TSX: Cron). Intrexon, a company applying synthetic biology across multiple industries, announced a $100 million licensing agreement with Surterra Holdings, one of the United States’ fastest-growing wellness companies. In Canada, start-up Hyasynth received a $10 million investment from another Canadian cannabis grower, Organigram.

With the growing consumer demand and applications of Cannabis in the pharmaceutical industry there is a lot of opportunity for synthetic biology to accelerate the field. Synthetic biology will increase our knowledge of the plant, the effects of its active compounds, and make the ones of interest more readily available

Thank you to Karl Schmieder  for additional research and reporting in this post. Please note: I am the founder of SynBioBeta, the innovation network for the synthetic biology industry. Some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors).

Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

Originally published on Forbes


John Cumbers

John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta. John is passionate about education and on the use and adoption of biological technologies. He has received multiple awards and grants from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for his work in the field. John has been involved in multiple startups such as those producing food for space, microbes to extract lunar and martian resources, and hoverboards! John is an active investor through the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund and his synthetic biology syndicate on AngelList.

Karl Schmieder

Karl Schmieder, M.S./M.F.A., has been providing strategy and communications counsel services to life sciences companies for more than 20 years. A rare combination of scientist and award-winning copywriter, Karl has a long tenure working with both startups and Fortune 10 life sciences companies developing technologies that disrupt markets. He has counseled multiple startups, launched major pharmaceutical brands (Risperdal, Januvia, Lucentis), and created thought leadership programs for executives at GSK, Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics, and PAREXEL. He served as Chief Marketing Officer at One Eleven Software and Chief Strategic Officer at Medikly. He is the co-author of What’s Your Bio Strategy? a book on the impact of synthetic biology on all business.

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