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posted by CoolHand on Friday April 17 2015, @01:34PM   Printer-friendly
from the making-the-hippies-happy dept.

Wired has a profile of "Real Vegan Cheese", a product emerging from Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, California. The DIY/biotech lab is using genetically modified yeast cells to produce 11 proteins normally found in cow's milk, which can then be used to create synthetic cheese.

The genetic engineering approach to cheese has been enabled by the rapidly falling cost of DNA synthesis. It now costs less than $0.25 per base pair to obtain a custom DNA sequence which can be delivered by mail. Why make vegan cheese using yeast? Cheesemaking is an artisanal process with centuries of history and one of the earliest examples of human-directed microbiology. Existing plant-based vegan cheeses can't reproduce the casein proteins needed to achieve a passable cheese. However, Real Vegan Cheese will not use animal fat or lactose.

The process is not limited to bovine cheese:

When I visit the lab, I discover the cheese team includes a biologist, a bioethicist, a retired clinical psychologist, an accountant, and a former Apple marketer. "This to me is a natural extension of computer culture," says Maria Chavez, the ex-Apple employee and a leader of the vegan cheese project. "What is bigger to hack than our bodies and our environment? It's one of the last big frontiers. The possibilities are exciting."

The possibilities include not just vegan cow cheese, but, well, vegan human cheese. The same basic process for synthesizing cow's milk applies to milk from any other mammal. You just need different genes. Cheese made from engineered human breast milk may not sound like a top seller at the deli counter. But the team says it can serve a practical purpose: Human milk cheese could offer an option to people who have allergies to non-human dairy products. (Chavez said the group has put its experiments with human milk on hold due to Food and Drug Administration concerns about possible autoimmune reactions.)

The team is also attempting to create a narwhal cheese, after achieving the stretch goal on Indiegogo. The recipe and experiments involved will be released as "open source"; the DNA sequence(s) will be submitted to iGEM's Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

Critics of synthetic foods worry about the use of GMOs and the lightly regulated nature of biotechnology labs and hackerspaces. The Real Vegan Cheese team notes that the cheese itself isn't a GMO, only the yeast is. Other recent forays into synthetic food include Muufri's synthetic milk, and Evolva's vanilla/vanillin and saffron substitutes.

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  • (Score: 4, Insightful) by takyon on Friday April 17 2015, @02:37PM

    by takyon (881) <{takyon} {at} {}> on Friday April 17 2015, @02:37PM (#172056) Journal

    You have to draw the line somewhere. Microorganisms don't have brains or "will" or "sentience" or "sapience". They are basically chemical machines with an input and an output. This genetic engineering is simply changing the output.

    Bacteria in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to 1. You are practically a slave to your gut.

    Also, are you really enslaving the yeasts? It's more like a transaction. You set the optimum temperature, you pay them sugar, they give you alcohol, casein, biofuels, etc. I don't see them complaining about working conditions.

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  • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Friday April 17 2015, @04:19PM

    by Thexalon (636) on Friday April 17 2015, @04:19PM (#172092)

    You have to draw the line somewhere.

    Of course, but where is that line? I mean, Carrot Juice is Murder [], right?

    I eat almost entirely vegetarian, but I know full well that there are idiots who take it way too far.

    The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
    • (Score: 2) by takyon on Friday April 17 2015, @04:43PM

      by takyon (881) <{takyon} {at} {}> on Friday April 17 2015, @04:43PM (#172100) Journal

      There are plenty of lines. There's the abortion debate based on drawing the line at conception, X weeks, birth, etc. There's the lab-grown meat debate which could become a big deal if a cost effective zero-suffering alternative to slaughter is produced. It's the no-suffering and environmentalism benefits of veganism without giving up meat. Part of the debate on GMO ethics might not relate to suffering or safety, but the ethics of say making pigs that glow in the dark just because you can do it.

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    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2015, @05:47AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2015, @05:47AM (#172311)

      It is all arbitrary. Choosing to be vegan or vegetarian, even if for ethical reasons, requires an arbitrary drawing of limits at what matters and what doesn't that is no more rational than choosing a favorite color. This has been debated by philosophers for a very long time. Like anything else in that field, if it has been debated for a long time without a robustly cogent thesis, then there likely isn't one at all.

      • (Score: 1) by xorsyst on Monday April 20 2015, @08:13AM

        by xorsyst (1372) on Monday April 20 2015, @08:13AM (#173067)

        But choosing to eat meat ALSO requires drawing an arbitrary limit - otherwise you'd be a cannibal. The line is just in a different place for vegetarians or vegans.