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Test tube milk the latest to hit the engineered food scene

Test tube milk the latest to h...
Muufri founders Ryan Pandya and CTO Perumal Gandhi are aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015
Muufri founders Ryan Pandya and CTO Perumal Gandhi are aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015
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While the goal is to produce a product as good, if not better, than milk, as well as cheaper, Muufri may initially cost twice the amount of cow milk
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While the goal is to produce a product as good, if not better, than milk, as well as cheaper, Muufri may initially cost twice the amount of cow milk
Muufri founders Ryan Pandya and CTO Perumal Gandhi are aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015
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Muufri founders Ryan Pandya and CTO Perumal Gandhi are aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015
Mock-up of a Muufri synthetic milk carton - the company is aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015
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Mock-up of a Muufri synthetic milk carton - the company is aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015
Muufri founders Ryan Pandya and CTO Perumal Gandhi
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Muufri founders Ryan Pandya and CTO Perumal Gandhi
Pandya says milk is ideal for synthesizing, with less than 20 components, starting with around 87 percent water and including proteins, enzymes, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals
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Pandya says milk is ideal for synthesizing, with less than 20 components, starting with around 87 percent water and including proteins, enzymes, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals

"Got (synthetically bioengineered plant-based) Milk?" may not have the punch of the famous California dairy industry advert, but the founders of a Silicon Valley-based biotech startup are hoping their genetically engineered yeast will produce a dairy alternative as good or better than the cow version. Joining a growing field of recent plant-based alternative meat and dairy startups, Muufri (pronounced “moo free”) was founded in May of 2014 and is taking a somewhat different approach to developing its product.

Soy, almonds and other nuts have long been a popular base for alternative meat and dairy items, but few diners have been fooled into believing their veggie burger or soy milk tastes like the animal version. The recent push by plant-based food startups seeks to produce alternatives in the lab that replicate the taste, texture, mouthfeel, look, flavor and cooking properties of the real thing, so diners will be fooled.

While meat, cheese and egg substitutes have been (or are being) developed by companies such as Hampton Creek Foods, Beyond Meet and Impossible Foods, no one has attempted to replicate one of the most basic and ubiquitous foodstuffs of all: milk.

According to co-founder and CEO Ryan Pandya, it’s one reason he and CTO Perumal Gandhi stepped into the void with Muufri. They also cite other industry memes in pursuing the venture, namely, feeding a growing world population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, and doing it in a sustainable manner. Besides the often inhumane treatment of cattle on large factory farms, some 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions each year can be attributed to dairy production, according to the UN.

"There are just such a so many problems with the food industry," says Pandya, who holds a BS in chemical and biological engineering from Tufts University, "and the way to address those problems with inefficiency is to remove animals from the equation as much as we can."

Pandya says milk is ideal for synthesizing, with less than 20 components, starting with around 87 percent water and including proteins, enzymes, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The company’s bottom-up process, according to their website, will include six key proteins for structure and function, and eight key fatty acids for flavor and richness. But instead of using cashews and almonds to replicate the curdy backbone as some alternative cheese makers do, Muufri is bioengineering yeast to produce authentic milk proteins, which will give it the same taste and nutrition as regular milk.

Muufri’s GMO process starts by adding cow DNA sequences into the yeast cells. After growing the cultures in optimal conditions of temperature and concentration, the resulting milk proteins are ready for harvest. Plant-derived fats will also be put through the biotech process to replicate the flavor and make-up of milk fats, while sugars and minerals like calcium will be added separately. The recipe can also easily be tweaked for greater health benefits, using an alternate sugar to lactose for the lactose-intolerant, or leaving cholesterol out altogether. And other types of milk – goat, buffalo, whole, skim – are also a viable option.

Mock-up of a Muufri synthetic milk carton - the company is aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015
Mock-up of a Muufri synthetic milk carton - the company is aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015

According to Pandya, there are several advantages to using yeast. It’s a common organism in the food industry and a component in bread, beer and wine making, and thus easier for consumers to accept, while several strains have been labeled safe by the FDA. It’s also easy to grow, with a fast throughput time in a wide range of temperatures, and Pandya can more easily equate their milk-making process to brewing beer, including the use of similar looking vats. For consumers concerned about a GMO planet, Muufri has engineered the yeast to die within hours after production.

While the goal is to produce a product as good, if not better, than milk, as well as cheaper, Muufri may initially cost twice the amount of cow milk. But without the typical bacteria found in milk, and thus no need for pasteurization, Muufri should have a very long shelf life. The synthetic milk is still in development, and the company is aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015.

Source: Muufri

16 comments
Jeff Rosati
Freeze that and you've got yourself some yeast-creme ... that sounds so good.
David Rochlin
Some of the proteins in milk, depending upon the variety of cow, may be more or less digestable for humans. So, I wonder if they take that into consideration in developing yeasts?
Scion
Correct me if I'm wrong but aren't the bacteria found in milk a considerable part of how we digest and use milk? Obviously it is possible to have contaminated milk that causes things like listeria poisoning but given a healthy milk source I'm pretty sure the bacteria is a good thing in milk. Yogurt is bacteria in milk as is cheese. It's all well and good to have a long shelf life but that benefit drops off if the product isn't capable of imparting nutrition. But then maybe, as David Rochlin above mentions, the yeast could produce a more digestible or "pre-digested" form of milk that is more useful to humans? (as there is some argument that cow milk is not optimal for human digestion) Certainly fascinating work and well worth watching.
zevulon
lots of money is pouring into sythetic biologically engineered replacement systems for animal proteins, specifially milk and eggs. as scary as this sounds to people, there is a distinct posssibility that within the next 100 years these efforts succeed in making a replacement that is palate-able to people. after all , people drink soymilk, which kind of suck compared to real milk. if a truly succesful milk and eggs replacement were to be invented, think of all the cows , chickens, acreage, and labor that would be made obsolete and unnecessary. i'm not a vegetarian or campaigner for animal rights, i'm just saying a whole lot of sweat blood and tears goes into making our eggs and milk, and if that requirement could be dramatically reduced to get us those staple foods in a quick and competitive manner-----well that would be part of a major agricultural revolution that would improve the lives of human beings and livestock and poultry. it's a win win. to boot---vast tracts of acreage reserved for cows and to far lesser extent poultry, would be freed up for any human or for nature to reclaim for other purposes.
xs400
Very interesting. I wish Gizmag would publish more news from the biotech area. (Maybe even devote an entire section to it) There are fantastic things happening in this area and I want to read it here first. I am little bored of reading that a processor is now running at 1.6 GHz instead of 1.2 GHz and the display has become larger or smaller.
Max Kennedy
Hmm, bioengineered GMO yeast. 1) there need to be long term (ie much longer than 5 years) studies of both the product and the survivability of the yeast in the natural environment along with it's impact on natural microbial populations and 2) I think I'll pass on any GMO products!
windykites
How can it taste better than real milk? Could they produce eggs that taste better than eggs? Maybe someone could make an entirely new type of food, with all the best features of taste, texture, and nutrition, rather than copying existing foods. I don't mean GMO, which most people find scary.
Dirk Scott
We call the dairy farm next door "Cow Torture Farm". Its not one of those hi-tech places, just an everyday milk producer. The yard is permanently ankle deep cow slurry and the white dog always looks like one of those two-tone chocolates, white on top brown underneath. The cows are so overbred for milk production they can barely walk when their udders are full. Each year they are artificially inseminated and have to go through a pregnancy and produce a calf in order to lactate. The farmer shoots the male calves and throws them in a heap, which dogs and badgers steal bits from. When disease breaks out the farmer blames the badgers and demands compensation from the government. If bio-milk gets rid of this kind of farming, then it will be a good thing.
Neil Farbstein
how about artificial skim milk with no fat added? It ought to be cheaper. I cant believe it tastes the same as regular milk.
B. Stott
Could do similar with altering natural Kefir?