Lab-Grown Cheese Made by ‘Milking’ Genetically Modified Yeast Cells

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If you’re against killing animals for food and clothing or believe industrial farming is too resource intense, you may have given up some of life’s greatest pleasures. No juicy steak for you, no deliciously sharp cheddar cheese, and certainly no fine Italian shoes. But what if you could make real beef, cheese, and leather—without a cow?

Scientists are hard at work on just such a sci-fi solution. The latest news? Oakland’s Counter Culture Labs and Sunnyvale’s BioCurious are teaming up to make vegan cheese in the lab. But this is no dubious nut or soy cheese. We’re talking the real deal—only no animals were harmed, or even directly involved, in the making of the cheese.

In their recently launched Indiegogo campaign, the Real Vegan Cheese team describes how this is possible. As you might have guessed, the secret is a combination of genomics, synthetic biology, and genetic modification.

The team first studied animal genomes to isolate the gene sequences responsible for producing milk protein or casein.  After optimizing the genes to work within yeast, they synthesized the gene from scratch in a genetic compiler, base pair by base pair. There’s no need to touch a cow in the making of the cheese.

These synthetic milk genes are inserted into yeast cells which begin manufacturing caseins. After the cells have been left to do their thing for awhile, the scientists separate yeast from caseins, add sugar (not lactose—making the cheese edible for the lactose intolerant), water, and vegetable oil.

They now have real (synthetically derived) milk and can make any cheese using traditional techniques. And when they say any cheese, they mean it. The process isn’t constrained to cow DNA. They could, for example, use human genes. This may be disturbing, but in fact, we’re better at digesting milk from our own species.

And really, sky’s the limit in terms of which species' milk DNA can be mimicked. After surpassing their funding goal of $15,000, the team said they’d make a batch of narwhal cheese (from the whale’s recently sequenced genome) if they hit their stretch goal of $20,000. In addition to selecting DNA, scientists can also select which of the various milk proteins their yeasts produce, removing those that may cause allergic responses.

At this point you might be chuckling to yourself—vegan cheese, yes, but genetically modified vegan cheese? In fact, what you get isn't. Although the protein is made in a genetically modified organism, it’s been separated from the yeast entirely, so the final product is pure casein. The cheese is technically GMO-free.

Cheese is only the latest attempt by scientists to make animal products in the lab.

burgers-lab-grown-meatLast year, Maastricht University’s Mark Post cooked up a lab-grown burger (backed by Google’s Sergey Brin for €250,000) in front of a crowd of reporters.

Unlike our synthetic cheese, however, Post’s burger wasn’t vegan. It was made using biopsied muscle cells from a cow shoulder. The cells were then placed around a gel scaffold in a petri dish where they fed on fetal bovine serum and antibiotics.

The team hopes to figure out a process without antibiotics or fetal bovine serum, but their current method can theoretically produce ten tons of meat from just a few cells. Though the burger was technically beef, lacking fat, it didn’t prove too tasty.

Post thinks lab-grown meat is 10 or 20 years out—but another advocate of synthetic animal products, Andras Forgacs, thinks it might happen sooner. Forgacs' Modern Meadow (a startup out of Singularity University Labs) is working on lab-grown leather, a problem Forgacs thinks will prove easier to solve in the short run.

Indeed, lab-grown meat or cheese will need to be proven safe to government agencies before it hits grocery stores. Real Vegan Cheese’s initial product, the result of their Indiegogo campaign, will be labeled “Not for Human Consumption.”

There will be fewer such constrictions on leather.

Like Post’s lab-grown burger, Modern Meadow uses biopsied cells to make their leather. Forgacs says the biopsies don’t harm the cows. The firm can make a square-foot of leather in roughly 1.5 months. Raising a cow takes two or three years.

Another advantage? Lab-grown leather may be consistently of higher quality, without flaws like scarring or discoloration, and therefore require less treatment.

The firm, recently the beneficiary of a $10 million dollar Series A investment, is trying to make their process as cheap as traditional leather. If they succeed, they’ll tap into a huge market—one that’s expected to reach a value of $91.2 billion globally by 2018.

cows-factory-farmWhether it’s milk, meat, or leather, livestock production requires an estimated 30% of the world’s ice-free land and produces more greenhouse gas than global transportation. Some 67 billion animals are annually slaughtered for meat. And conditions on factory farms aren’t particularly animal-friendly.

It may not happen right away, but other than time, investment, and ingenuity, there’s little preventing synthetic biology from enabling the manufacturing of animal products indistinguishable from the real thing—even products that improve on the real thing—without ever involving a single animal.

Go here if you’d like to the support Real Vegan Cheese Indiegogo campaign—the project is staffed by volunteers, proceeds go to materials, equipment, and physical space, and all research and patentable tech will be released to the public domain.

Image Credit: Real Vegan Cheese;;

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 11 Responses

  • Matthew July 21, 2014 on 11:25 am

    can we twist this into an argument about how the Christian interpretation of God is far superior and all the information humanity will ever need is in HIS book???? it seems no less applicable here than in the article next to this about evolving past our own genome… no seriously. let’s have at it. everything you need to know about cheese is in the bible. science is all wrong. everything in the bible is empirical fact. sell your kids into slavery for land, stone your cheating wife to death, all of it. anyway, back to reality… thank you science for once again making a piece of life a little easier. it seems there is no limit to the miracles of innovation. now, being that scientific innovations are only really made when a corporation sees potential profit, can one of these corporations work on capitalizing on eliminating human hatred and subjugation and lack of education and lack of employment next? jetsons cars are meaningless if we can’t afford them. or are the only ones owning them in a dying world of misery and war. just an idea we might consider somewhere in our exponential growth of GDP and computation (knowledge).

  • Nolux July 21, 2014 on 11:46 am

    I’m with you
    Except for the negativity. From everything I’ve read and watched so far human living conditions on the whole are improving fantastically. Media emphasizes the extremes of society so most of what we see is extremists at their worst. There are many powerful forces for good working in the background, secular and non secular.

    • Matthew Nolux July 22, 2014 on 6:57 am

      I agree completely. I was in a bad mood. lol

  • Graeme Stewart July 21, 2014 on 1:48 pm

    You really don’t have a prayer do you america? Not a hope.

    Warning — GM Food Linked to Cancer—-gm-food-linked-to-cancer.aspx
    Ten Neurotoxins You Should Avoid

    There’s no question about it; – you will accelerate an appearance of Christianity’s Armageddon messing with all this stuff. And then what will have been proven; – that the Christians were all delusional?

    Mind how you go. Tada.
    — (thinks – “idiots”).

    • failcake Graeme Stewart July 21, 2014 on 9:15 pm

      Well played, Graeme, well played. You started with a post like Jim Gravelyn in the other thread, and then turn it up to 11. Christians good, GM bad. I’ve eaten so much MSG, Aspartame, etc that most of my brain cells have died and so I actually believe decades of peer reviewed science over quack scaremongering. I mean sure, the average life expectancy for a male in the US has gone up nearly 8% since the FDA approved aspartame. And worldwide life expectancies have grown steadily even as the consumption of GM foods have risen dramatically. But I get it, that’s all lies or my neurotoxified brain has misunderstood the copious world-wide peer-reviewed science on the matter. No doubt, America is doomed. Doomed I tell you! Dooooooommmmeed!!

      • failcake cabhanlistis July 28, 2014 on 11:22 pm

        Didn’t you hear me? GM bad. We’re doooooommmmmed!!!

        • cabhanlistis failcake July 29, 2014 on 11:03 am

          Failcake, that’s nonsense. All you need is soybean oil, lactose, palm oil, and soy lecithin to neutralize the bad toxins and you’re good. You can find all of those ingredients in a Snickers® bar in just the right amounts.

          Snickers® bars. Say it aloud… Snickers® ba…

          Wait. Who keeps putting that trademark registered symbol in my text? I swear they’re watching me! Probably working closely with the NSA.

  • cabhanlistis July 28, 2014 on 6:03 pm

    Go further and make synthetic ivory to put the poachers out of business.

  • Elena P October 6, 2014 on 1:43 pm

    I would like to know the name of the company manufacturing lab-grown leather. Is it possible?

  • Prasad N R March 1, 2015 on 7:25 am

    Hats off to these mind-blowing works. What an impact these projects can certainly have. Hope my HeroX challenge’s objectives are met even before it’s deadlines. Hats off. Truly magnificent.