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    Cronos Group, another Canadian cannabis company, signed a $122 million deal with Boston-based Ginko Bioworks Inc. last month to genetically engineer the active compounds or cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, in a yeast-based process to grow THC  and CBD.

     

    THC and CBD are the two most famous cannabinoids, but the cannabis plant contains more than 90 different chemicals, many of which have barely been studied. Scientists can engineer the genetic material created from the yeast to exhibit specific properties — such as a medicine that is virtually pure CBD.

    "Our strains of yeast are genetically modified, but the products we sell are not GMOs [genetically modified organisms]," said Kevin Chen, co-founder and chief executive of Hyasynth, a Montreal startup run by young scientists.

    Far cheaper

    An observer wouldn't find any cannabis plants or growing equipment in their facility. Instead, the company's operations look like a cross between a traditional science lab and a "fancy" microbrewery, with large tanks containing yeast used in the genetic modification process, Chen said.

    That process for producing THC, CBD and other cannabinoids in a lab is far cheaper and more efficient than growing plants, he said.

    Hyasynth signed a deal worth $10 million with licensed cannabis producer Organigram last month for the large-scale production of cannabinoids, and it has two international patents pending, Chen said. He didn't elaborate, citing commercial confidentiality.

     

    How it works

    The process for creating genetically altered versions of the chemicals found in cannabis — known as cannabinoids — doesn't actually involve changing the plant itself.

    Instead, scientists at Hyasynth Bio genetically alter fermented yeast —  a process comparable to creating synthetic perfume from chemicals contained inside flowers — to construct copies of the DNA strands found in cannabis. The yeast acts like a small factory to produce cannabinoids in the lab.

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