Team: iGEM Frankfurt -


Possible impact of synthetic biology on cocaine production

Like every new technology synthetic biology might also offer the potential for intentional abuse. In contrast to BioSafety, which focuses on unintentional damage, it is much harder to prevent. In gerneral we will never get 100% certainty and therefore the society as whole has to discuss when the benefits outweight the risk. We discussed new possibilities to produce the recreational illegal drug cocaine, which is related to our project because of its similar chemical structure.

History of coca use

The Coca leafs were chewed by indigenous people in South America for its stimulating and medical uses (anesthetic). When the spanish arrived 1569 in South America they taxed coca plant after first rejecting the claims. Extraction und purification was done by a PhD Student of Friedrich Wöhler 1856. 1859 Paolo Mantegazza published a paper about the effect, which was read by Angelo Mariani. He developed a wine treated with cocoa leaves. This is the beginning of commercial drug trafficking.

Cocaine was supplied by many employers to afro americans to increase their workforce and was sometimes a replacement for caffeine. 1906 the cocaine consumption increased 5 times compared to 1890. It became the drug of the poor because it was cheaper than alcohol. Cocaine became a social threat. There are reports that it was used to make kids addicted and seduce young girls away form their homes to get the drug and forcing them into prostitution.

Even Coca Cola added (an undetectable amount) cocoa to their receip, but withdrew it in 1906.

The prohibition of cocaine started in 1914 ( Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, Jones-Miller Act of 1922)

Todays market

Today about 600 t are consumed worldwide, about 50% in the US and 25% in Europe. The US Market is about 38 billion $.

"The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reports that the typical retail price of cocaine varied between €50 and €75 per gram in most European countries, although Cyprus, Romania, Sweden and Turkey reported much higher values.[128]" ( )

Supply chain

Although artificial synthesis of cocaine is possible and highly desired because synthesis could be done anywhere below the radar of the feds and one would't need big fields to grow the plant. But since the yield of toing this the chemical way is very low because of stereoisomeres, it is too expensive.

How cloud synthetic biology change the cocaine market?

Enzymes are stereoselective which results theoretically in a higher efficiency than chemical synthesis. Since we believe that yield is the only thing that stops synthetic cocaine production this is a major issue. Synthetic Biologist like the iGEM Team Frankfurt are developing methods to increase the yield. Although our intention is to produce Rebaudiosid A, a sweetener from Stevia Plant, our work together with many other synthetic biologist could also contribute to make synthetic cocaine production profitable. We dont know if the economical break even point can be archieved and if it is done or under development.


A first attempt today is at the level of DNA Synthesis companies which scan through a blacklists of DNA sequences and also do customer screening so not anybody can order DNA. Today we dont have an affordable way to just buy a DNA synthesis machine like a printer, which costs about half a milltion $ and is mostly only available to companies. In addition to prevention we also have to think about ways to react. One way could be to educate responsible authorities about the impact on new logistics which we think the main influence of this new technology in a criminal environment. It is also important to do this early to avoid overregulation of the community. We can learn from experience of the IT world and the history of other new technologies which face today the issues synthetic biology might face in 5 to 10 years.