Congratulations to the Kutchan lab on a fantastic new study published in Nature Sustainability entitled "Enzyme morphinan N-demethylase for more sustainable opiate processing". This research involved the screening of an opium processing waste pond to identify micro-organisms capable of metabolizing opiates. Poppy (Papaver spp.) plants produce many natural opiates, including some used in medicine such as thebaine and morphine. Thebaine is an opiate alkaloid used in the production of many types of opiates as well as drugs used in cases of opiate overdose such as naloxone. In this study, waste pond sludge was screened on a minimal media of thebaine as the only source of carbon. A Methylobacterium sp. was identified which could metabolize thebaine through N-demethylation, an important and currently costly step in the synthesis of drugs for the treatment of opiate addiction. Further analyses lead to the discovery of the enzyme morphinan N-demethylase (MND), which is responsible for the ability of this microbe to metabolize thebaine. This reaction removes the N-methyl group from thebaine and in turn provides a carbon energy source to the Methylobacterium. Furthermore, the enzyme was demonstrated to withstand a variety of temperatures, pH levels, and solvents, indicating its potential to be used for green chemistry reactions in industrial settings. The potential of MND for biocatalysis of opiate addiction treatments may provide a more sustainable production of these high-in-demand drugs, bypassing steps in pharmaceutical synthesis which currently utilize toxic substrates at relatively low efficiency.
This work made it on the cover page of Nature Sustainability's June 2019 issue. I'm honored to have contributed to this amazing work. Find our paper at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-019-0302-6
Image credit: Dr. Howard Berg