Many people say they can’t go vegan because of their addiction to dairy. But that excuse could soon be past its sell-by date if a team of biohackers in California succeeds in scaling up production of a cheese that contains no animal by-products. They call it Real Vegan Cheese. Their aim is to offer a sustainable food alternative with the same nutritional value – and taste – as non-vegan cheese.

The collective, open-source effort is made of members of two biohacker collectives called Counter Culture Labs (Oakland) and BioCurious (Sunnyvale). The research group is using synthetic biology to engineer brewer's yeast into a casein (milk protein) production unit.

The process starts with yeast being grown in a bioreactor, followed by the purification of the protein that the yeast produces. The casein is then combined with oil, vegan sugar (refined sugar may contain cow bone) to feed the ripening bacteria, and water to produce a sort of vegan milk. This milky mix is the raw material for the vegan cheese, which is then processed using a traditional cheese-making technique.

In order to turn the yeast into an efficient casein production unit, the researchers have studied animal genomes to create their own casein genetic sequences, which are optimized for use with the yeast. There are difficulties in using yeast as a protein production unit, because the proteins the researchers want are designed by nature for animal systems. Yeast's cellular machinery is less efficient compared with that of some milk-producing animals. To solve that problem, the researchers intend to incorporate kinase enzymes that could make yeast-derived milk proteins perform like animal milk proteins.

Another aspect of the project is that, being in total control over the DNA sequences, the researchers can play around with the variants of the four main proteins found in cheese, and design the product according to the health needs of consumers. One of the possibilities the researchers are contemplating is narwhal cheese, presumably mostly for the novelty factor. The genome of this type of whale has not been sequenced yet, but the University of California at Santa Cruz has sent an expedition to the Arctic to do just that. The real vegan cheese teams hopes to work with the narwhal researchers and study the mammal's casein genes.

The reference to animals does not mean the cheese is not 100 percent vegan, though. The genes are inspired by mammals, but the organisms and growth mediums are completely animal-free.

For those who worry about safety issues and who are averse to the idea of genetically modified organisms (GMO), the researchers say they have taken those concerns into account. They explain that no GMO goes into the cheese, as the milk protein is separated from the GM yeast.

Besides those concerns and technological hurdles to produce the right type of milk to make the cheese, there are several regulatory requirements that the researchers will have to deal with before they deliver any vegan cheese to the world, which is their ultimate goal.

Right now they are in Phase I, working on the production of an initial cheese sample. Next they will take their project to the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) taking place in October.

They hope to brew a big batch of yeast at the end of the project, and have enough cheese protein for one small cheese, which they will send to supporters of their current Indiegogo campaign. Funding packages offer a range of perks from T-shirts (US$35) to a biohacker lab coat ($100) as well as a nut-based vegan cheese-tasting session ($300 for two), among others.

The research is being made available on a wiki as it happens and licensed under free and open licenses. Any patents will be released into the public domain. The researchers are volunteers and proceeds from the funding campaign cover material costs and work space.

Besides ethical vegans, animal-free cheese is good news for people who suffer from lactose intolerance but appreciate cheese. Also, plant-based cheese is more sustainable than its animal equivalent as animal agriculture is cited by the UN as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The vegan cheese team explain their plans in the video below.

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