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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: 3, Interesting) by Reziac on Saturday April 18 2015, @02:58AM

    by Reziac (2489) on Saturday April 18 2015, @02:58AM (#172272) Homepage

    The biochemist in me feels obligated to point out that neither your body nor a laboratory can determine if that lysine came from a cow or a yeast. It is atom-for-atom identical.

    However from a nutritional standpoint... we're still not 100% in our knowledge of what nutrients we should have, and even those we must have. Frex, it's just starting to be recognised that dogs *do* need taurine in their diets; deficiency symptoms in dogs have generally gone unrecognised, as they are not nearly as severe as for taurine deficiency in cats. (If you're curious -- two symptoms I've noticed are abnormal body tension in puppies, and severe itching in adults. Diets with lamb or milk as the only animal protein will cause taurine deficiency.)

    So when we make 'cheese' (one hates to dignify something that's legally and ethically NOT cheese with the name) the vegan way... what are we leaving out that's not yet recognised as a necessary nutrient? How is the balance sub-optimal? Frex, barring supplementation, I'd guess that vegan-cheese is short on calcium compared to real cheese.

    And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
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  • (Score: 2) by kaszz on Saturday April 18 2015, @10:27AM

    by kaszz (4211) on Saturday April 18 2015, @10:27AM (#172344) Journal

    The problem is that findings is dependent on physical lab precision and capability. And there might not be any lab that can find out the right chemical structures and not knowing that they can't find it either. The limit of human knowledge and capability in other words.

    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Reziac on Saturday April 18 2015, @01:55PM

      by Reziac (2489) on Saturday April 18 2015, @01:55PM (#172402) Homepage

      I went to university in biochemistry. We were at the stage of being able to ID chemical structures accurately over 40 years ago. So that's really not the problem, even tho I realise it intuitively seems to be -- since we can't actually see 'em with our eyes. Well, we can now with an electron microscope, but outside of that, yeah, I see why it feels like groping in the dark, because it's all 'secondhand' evidence, like if you put X and Y into the reagent, you figure out what happens by how much Z is produced. But that doesn't mean it's invalid; it's just means it's math. Lab precision at this point approaches ridiculously accurate (parts per trillion can be detected). *Manufacturing* precision is a different matter (did you know that about half of all batches of some low-dose drugs are discarded due to manufacturing imprecision?)

      The limit of human knowledge here isn't the structure of various molecules; it's what's in cheese that's missing in vegan-cheese and will cause a deficiency in those who consume it long-term, but isn't yet widely considered a necessary nutrient. (Remember how long it took for B-12 to be recognised as the critical factor missing in vegan diets; some vegans still deny that it's needed, despite the evidence of retarded, dead, and entirely-absent children.)

      An example of that: feeding a dog a diet exclusively of raw meat, free of digested plant matter, eventually causes zinc deficiency (but it takes around 7 years to manifest, and then oddly: their toenails fall off.) Probably a biochemist would have spotted this, given a chemical breakdown of the diet, but a nutritionist did not, because it was thought that the all-raw-meat diet provided enough zinc. Growing chemically-identical raw meat in a petri dish wouldn't change that.

      What was the question? :)

      Anyway, don't mistake individual knowledge for total knowledge. Chemistry is overall one of the better-understood fields (certainly miles above climate science).

      And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
      • (Score: 2) by kaszz on Saturday April 18 2015, @02:04PM

        by kaszz (4211) on Saturday April 18 2015, @02:04PM (#172406) Journal

        If one can identify chemical composition with precision. Then one could compare on a molecular composition of real cheese with GMO yeast produced cheese and complement any missing molecules.

        I'll see a problem with all synthetic production using mixing rather than produced by actual cells GMO or not. Because the synthetic will have no real on a molecular level regulation of production. And errors will occur as a percentage. Those parts may cause some real problems.

        If biochemistry were mastered. We would have artificial hearts and lungs that works long term already.

        • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Saturday April 18 2015, @11:43PM

          by Reziac (2489) on Saturday April 18 2015, @11:43PM (#172638) Homepage

          I would never trust a vegan product to be nutritionally equivalent, even if our understanding of biochemistry was perfect.

          Since veganism is by design a recipe for human extinction, my suspicious little voice reminds me that if more people can be suckered into a vegan diet, that's more people who won't reproduce.

          And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
          • (Score: 2) by kaszz on Sunday April 19 2015, @12:16AM

            by kaszz (4211) on Sunday April 19 2015, @12:16AM (#172656) Journal

            It's usually people that is largely beneficial to society that won't reproduce (enough) while others seems to have nothing better to do. Don't think veganism is very reproductively prohibitive.

            • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Sunday April 19 2015, @12:20AM

              by Reziac (2489) on Sunday April 19 2015, @12:20AM (#172660) Homepage

              Well, it is for vegans, and that's one group of ...misguided... folks we don't need more of.

              But, yeah, overall the reproductive pyramid seems upsidedown, til you remember that natural selection doesn't bother to listen to our ideas.

              And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
    • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Saturday April 18 2015, @01:59PM

      by Reziac (2489) on Saturday April 18 2015, @01:59PM (#172404) Homepage

      Forgot to mention, I suspect some confusion over "natural" vs "made in a lab" comes from misunderstanding of 'handedness' (since bioforms make mostly L or D, while a lab-made equivalent can be equal parts L and D): []

      And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.