Opium Poppy Cultivation at a New High in Afghanistan
An Afghan policeman is seen destroying poppies in a campaign against narcotics in Kunar provinceReuters

In what has been hailed as a medical breakthrough, scientists have turned sugar into morphine using genetically-modified yeast, without the use of poppies.

The GM yeast is similar to that used when making wine or beer. Potentially the discovery could have huge benefits for the development of cheaper medicines without having to farm poppies. It could also make poppy farming unnecessary.

The announcement was made by scientists at Canada's Concordia University, and was announced in a paper in the PLOS journal by researchers.

Lead researcher Dr Vincent Martin, a biologist at Concordia, wrote: "Efficient production of opiates using microbial platforms could reduce the cost of opiate production."

Afghan poppy farmers
Afghan farmers work in a poppy field, in a village outside Balkh province, about 500km (310 miles) north of Kabul Reuters/Ahmad Masood

However, the discovery could mean poppy farmers rely even more on heroin manufacturers to survive. And that heroin could be produced anywhere sugar is available.

Afghanistan produces almost all of the 440 tons of heroin consumed annually each year. The Taliban are officially opposed to the production or use of heroin, but much of the group's revenue comes from poppy production. This money is then used to purchase weapons.

Professor Christina Smolke, of Stanford College California, is working on a separate study.

According to Chemistry World her team "engineered a strain of yeast expressing three key enzymes used by poppy plants to convert the opiate precursor thebaine to morphine. After culturing the engineered yeast with thebaine for four days, they detected morphine and codeine".

However, Professor Smolke warned in Nature Chemical Biology that "genetically-encoded" safety measures were needed to "secure yeast strains for the legitimate production of drugs with the potential for misuse".

Heroin use is already increasing in many parts of the world. CNN reported that 8,260 people died of heroin overdose in the US in 2013. In the UK 765 deaths involved heroin or morphine were recorded in 2013.