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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: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2015, @04:05AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2015, @04:05AM (#172290)

    I used to be pro GMO, but am disappointed in what they are actually used for-- increasing the quantity of herbicides sprayed on fields mainly. With an even more worrying side-effect of reducing genetic diversity to the point where most of our staple crops are clones of a single cultivar-- I foresee famine when the inevitable disease hits this new extreme mono cropping. I also am concerned about genes jumping to other related plants and destroying natural genetic diversity (e.g., Roundup Ready canola genes are found in wild rape).

    If you think any of the above is irrational, please explain.

    As far as vegan cheese, the point of this stuff will not be that any vegan will give a lick about it-- most probably won't. It will be very popular if it can be produced at lower cost than traditional cheese. Purveyors of food-like substances like Mc Donalds and Kraft will be huge buyers. And, folks will eat it knowingly or not because it is cheap.

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2015, @04:57AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2015, @04:57AM (#172304)

    Its most practical application is as a vat-grown source of protein for long space voyages (think early missions to Mars, Venus, or the belt). It might also help if you're trying to reduce methane emmissions from cows. Wouldn't do me much good though, since I'm intolerant of not just lactose, but also other milk/cheese proteins like casein.