The Amoeba Dictyostelium Discoideum Used to Synthesize a Precursor to THC

It is not a new finding in our world that microorganisms can help in the production of useful substances including drugs. The penicillin mold, Chrysogenum, is a typical example. With more research, useful substances can be made out of things previously considered useless and harmful. Though such research is usually time and resource-consuming, it has been the bedrock for various advances made in science and life generally.



Amoeba is one of such organisms that though, it can cause diseases like amoebic dysentery, has been found to produce useful substances like polyketides. There are different species of amoeba – proteus, limiloca, Entamoeba histolytica, Naegleria fowleri, among others. However, the one important to this study on pain killers is the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. It has been reported to have many biosynthetic genes which help in the production of natural products, one of which is polyketides. Polyketides are a group of natural products which bacteria, fungi, and plants synthesize, and have found use in many therapeutic applications.

Why is this amoeba important

Various researches have commenced on the polyketide production from Dictyostelium. One of these is from Hans Knoll Institute in Germany. They found various antibiotics from the polyketides, olivetolic acid inclusive, which is a precursor of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Tetrahydrocannabinol is the major psychoactive component of cannabis. Cannabis has been reported to have mental and physical effects like euphoria, perception changes, and appetite increase. Many medical uses for THC have not yet been found, though it is used in patients with neurological diseases and pain to provide relief.

Getting the pure THC from the abundance of substances is complex, while its chemical synthesis produces low yield and is expensive. Hence, the research for biotechnological ways of production of such plant substances as THC.

Escherichia coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae have been used in the trial process for the production of natural products, but, a lot of genetic modifications are needed to enable synthesis in these organisms. Alternatives to these organisms are being sought and one that seems to make headway is the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. This organism possesses many biosynthetic genes which are highly similar to the biosynthetic genes of plants.

Research by Hillman and his group showed that a combination of the plant enzyme which produces olivetolic acid, a THC precursor, with an amoebic enzyme, when incorporated into the amoebic genome, together with the natural properties of the amoeba, produced olivetolic acid. Thus, they produced a hybrid enzyme that can produce the THC precursor without further additives. The team looks forward to inserting the remaining enzymes, two in number, that will enable the production in amoeba of THC which is the final product.

Clinical significance

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a substance that can bring relief to patients with neurological diseases and pain. It has promising prospects for use in health improvement. Hence, if it can be isolated in its pure form through this method, production costs could very well fall drastically.


The production of olivetolic acid by amoeba brings hope to the field of medicine that eventually, THC can be produced in its pure form and used, in the improvement of the quality of life of people.


Engineering the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum for biosynthesis of a cannabinoid precursor and other polyketides



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