A team of researchers at UC Berkeley have genetically engineered a species of yeast to produce artemisinic acid, a chemical cousin to a powerful anti-malaria drug.
The research is at the cutting edge of synthetic biology in which compounds produced by plants or animals are reproduced more cheaply and faster by bacteria or industrial chemical processes. UC's Jay Keasling, with a $43 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been trying to develop a synthetic way to produce Artemisinin, an antimalarial drug that derives from a mangrove plant in Southeast Asia. Harvesting it naturally is very expensive.
In five to ten years, synthetically produced Artemisinin could radically cut the costs. Artemisinic acid requires only one more processing step to turn it into the drug.