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Biohackers are developing a vegan cheese

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July 30, 2014

The researchers have engineered yeast to produce casein, a milk protein

The researchers have engineered yeast to produce casein, a milk protein

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Many people say they can’t go vegan because of their addiction to dairy. But that excuse could soon be past its sell-by date if a team of biohackers in California succeeds in scaling up production of a cheese that contains no animal by-products. They call it Real Vegan Cheese. Their aim is to offer a sustainable food alternative with the same nutritional value – and taste – as non-vegan cheese.

The collective, open-source effort is made of members of two biohacker collectives called Counter Culture Labs (Oakland) and BioCurious (Sunnyvale). The research group is using synthetic biology to engineer brewer's yeast into a casein (milk protein) production unit.

The process starts with yeast being grown in a bioreactor, followed by the purification of the protein that the yeast produces. The casein is then combined with oil, vegan sugar (refined sugar may contain cow bone) to feed the ripening bacteria, and water to produce a sort of vegan milk. This milky mix is the raw material for the vegan cheese, which is then processed using a traditional cheese-making technique.

In order to turn the yeast into an efficient casein production unit, the researchers have studied animal genomes to create their own casein genetic sequences, which are optimized for use with the yeast. There are difficulties in using yeast as a protein production unit, because the proteins the researchers want are designed by nature for animal systems. Yeast's cellular machinery is less efficient compared with that of some milk-producing animals. To solve that problem, the researchers intend to incorporate kinase enzymes that could make yeast-derived milk proteins perform like animal milk proteins.

Purifying the protein

Another aspect of the project is that, being in total control over the DNA sequences, the researchers can play around with the variants of the four main proteins found in cheese, and design the product according to the health needs of consumers. One of the possibilities the researchers are contemplating is narwhal cheese, presumably mostly for the novelty factor. The genome of this type of whale has not been sequenced yet, but the University of California at Santa Cruz has sent an expedition to the Arctic to do just that. The real vegan cheese teams hopes to work with the narwhal researchers and study the mammal's casein genes.

The reference to animals does not mean the cheese is not 100 percent vegan, though. The genes are inspired by mammals, but the organisms and growth mediums are completely animal-free.

For those who worry about safety issues and who are averse to the idea of genetically modified organisms (GMO), the researchers say they have taken those concerns into account. They explain that no GMO goes into the cheese, as the milk protein is separated from the GM yeast.

Besides those concerns and technological hurdles to produce the right type of milk to make the cheese, there are several regulatory requirements that the researchers will have to deal with before they deliver any vegan cheese to the world, which is their ultimate goal.

Right now they are in Phase I, working on the production of an initial cheese sample. Next they will take their project to the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) taking place in October.

They hope to brew a big batch of yeast at the end of the project, and have enough cheese protein for one small cheese, which they will send to supporters of their current Indiegogo campaign. Funding packages offer a range of perks from T-shirts (US$35) to a biohacker lab coat ($100) as well as a nut-based vegan cheese-tasting session ($300 for two), among others.

The research is being made available on a wiki as it happens and licensed under free and open licenses. Any patents will be released into the public domain. The researchers are volunteers and proceeds from the funding campaign cover material costs and work space.

Besides ethical vegans, animal-free cheese is good news for people who suffer from lactose intolerance but appreciate cheese. Also, plant-based cheese is more sustainable than its animal equivalent as animal agriculture is cited by the UN as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The vegan cheese team explain their plans in the video below.

Sources: Real Vegan Cheese, Indiegogo

About the Author
Antonio Pasolini Brazilian-Italian Antonio Pasolini graduated in journalism in Brazil before heading out to London for an MA in film and television studies. He fell in love with the city and spent 13 years there as a film reviewer before settling back in Brazil. Antonio's passion for green issues - and the outdoors - eventually got the best of him and since 2007 he's been writing about alternative energy, sustainability and new technology.   All articles by Antonio Pasolini
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6 Comments

And it will only cost $50 a pound.

DemonDuck
30th July, 2014 @ 02:10 pm PDT

So it isn't OK to milk a cow but it is OK to kill billions of yeast in our desire to feed ourselves?

So it is OK to effectively enslave illegal migrant workers to harvest the vegetables and cane to produce food but it isn't OK to "enslave" cows to produce milk or bees to make honey?

So it is OK to kill all the animals and insects that would eat our crops but it isn't OK to kill a cow eating our pasture?

This vegan thing is a bit peculiar in its desire to not harm animals. The line seems a little vague and arbitrary.

Still, using this technology to create masses of food in an efficient manner would be excellent regardless of its "vegan" credentials.

Scion
30th July, 2014 @ 07:20 pm PDT

This appears to be synthetic cows-milk cheese. Vegan is more about natural vegetables than synthetics for me. I have no problem with the relentless course of nature because nature rules supreme in this world.

Threesixty
31st July, 2014 @ 02:31 am PDT

It's not GMO you see, cuz you see, we took all that out. So now it's like organic, man.

Kidding aside, this may have some potential, especially if it can be an economical way to produce foodstuffs.

Bruce H. Anderson
31st July, 2014 @ 09:42 am PDT

This lab experiment will taste like crap, will be expensive, and will only cause me to wonder how long until some over-rich .01percenter figures out how to corral the patents and call this stuff Soylent Green.

StWils
31st July, 2014 @ 11:13 am PDT

I think there are already some non-dairy products out there. There is one called veggi-cheese that does not contain any dairy product yet tastes like and melts like dairy cheese.

BigGoofyGuy
5th August, 2014 @ 09:51 am PDT
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