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How That Beer You're Drinking Is Helping Cure Malaria

It’s not because they’re giving some money away. An ingredient in the beer-making process has just been reengineered to produce a key malaria-fighting ingredient that used to be prohibitively expensive.

The next time you open a beer, think about this: there are life-saving ingredients in your drink. baker’s yeast, a key component in most bread and beer production, can be engineered so that it produces an ingredient found in the most effective ant-malaria treatment out there. Prior to the discovery, the ingredient—artemisinic acid—was expensive and hard-to-find.

Artemisinin is derived from the sweet wormwood tree. It is 95% effective against malaria, but it’s difficult today to boost production high enough to make prices for the drug reasonable—a big problem since malaria is widespread in many poor countries.

The researchers behind the study—published in the journal Nature and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—figured out how to create a partially synthetic version of artemisinin using a production process that makes production by 16 times than today’s methods. That means scientists can now produce 25 grams of artemisinic acid concentration per liter—compared to the 1.6 grams per liter generated by other methods.

Researchers at Amyris (a renewable biofuel company whose long history of ups and downs we profiled here.) have been working on semi-synthetic artemisinin for over a decade. Now that they’ve discovered how to produce it, the drug is going to be available almost immediately. Sanofi started producing artemisinin using the new method earlier this month, according to Bloomberg.

This is just one of the malaria-related research projects funded by the Gates Foundation. The artemisinin research is positively tame compared the Weapon of Mosquito Destruction (WMD), a Gates-funded laster device that kills mosquitoes in an attempt to curb the spread of malaria.