If you're a vegan, cheese options are limited. There are high-quality vegan cheeses out there, but they just don't taste the same, and they're mostly soft— it's difficult to make any sort of hard vegan cheese, like gouda or cheddar. A team of Bay Area biohackers is trying to create a new option: real vegan cheese. That is, cheese derived from baker's yeast that has been modified to produce real milk proteins. It's the same as cow cheese, but made without the cow. Think of it as the cheese equivalent of lab-grown meat.
The journey towards vegan cheese began a few years ago, when synthetic biologist Marc Juul started thinking about the genetic engineering possibilities. Now, Juul and a group of people from two Bay Area biohacker spaces, Counter Culture Labs and BioCurious, are trying to create a finished product in time for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition—a global synthetic biology competition—in October. So far, they've raised over $16,000 on Indiegogo to do it.
The vegan cheese team does have a number of vegan and vegetarian members, as well as others passionate about the challenge and the prospect of having cheese that doesn't require the mistreatment of cows. "We're blessed in the Bay Area. There are lots of great cheeses produced north of San Francisco—small scale, organic, free-range, small cheese manufacturers. But that doesn’t hold for most cheese currently being made," says Patrik D'haeseleer, a computational biologist on the team.
In order to get baker's yeast to produce milk proteins, the team scoured animal genomes to come up with milk-protein genetic sequences. Those sequences are then inserted into yeast, where they can produce milk protein. Once the protein is purified, it needs to be mixed with a vegan milk-fat replacement, sugar (not lactose, so that the cheese will be edible by the lactose intolerant among us), and water to create vegan milk. Then the normal cheese-making process can commence. The team wants to start with a cheddar or gouda to satisfy vegan cravings for hard cheese.
"There are lots of naturally occurring cheese proteins that have naturally occurring [positive] health effects. We can pick and choose variants we want to use," says D'haeseleer. He stresses that the end product is GMO free. While the yeast is genetically modified, the purified proteins secreted by the yeast are not. Rennet used in traditional cheese is produced in a similar manner, using GMO E.coli bacteria.
Research is still in the early stages. By October, the team hopes to have four of the casein (milk) proteins produced and verified, along with the enzyme that attaches phosphate groups to these proteins. Ideally, the team would also like to demonstrate that it can coagulate the ingredients into cheese.
"At that point, we might have a small amount of what we might call cheese, on the order of grams or milligrams. Then we can start talking about how to scale it up," says D'haeseleer. "When it gets into the art and science of cheesemaking, we would probably collaborate with a real cheesemaker at that point. That's a whole different skillset."
In theory, they can make vegan cheese from any mammal's DNA—including humans and other mammals. If the team reaches its stretch goal of $20,000, it plans to create Narwhal cheese, working with researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz on genetic sequencing and analysis.
All of the research is going up on a public wiki, but some of the team members may reportedly be interested in pursuing this full-time eventually. "10 years ago, this kind of science wouldn’t have been possible," says D'haeseleer. "For synthetic biology, it's gotten to the point where a team of biohackers like us can accomplish this."