Genetically modified yeast could help overcome a global shortage of the most effective drug for malaria -a particular health concern in Africa -- according to research conducted at the University of California at Berkeley and published in the journal Nature.

The drug's main component, artemisinin, is currently found in the sweet wormwood plant, Artemisia annua, but extracting it has proven costly and time consuming. In the Nature study, the Berkeley researchers created yeast "factories'" capable of producing the chemical precursor of artemisinin nearly 100 times more quickly than it can be extracted from plants.

The researchers tweaked the yeast's genes, then added two genes from sweet wormwood to its DNA. This "simple and inexpensive purification process" is all that is needed to extract artemisinin from the modified yeast, they noted. However, they added, more work is needed to optimize the amount of artemisinin produced.

Three hundred to 500 million people are infected each year with malaria. In Africa, artemisinin-based medication is largely unaffordable to the general population.