Imagindairy plans to cut out the cow and make milk from yeast
An Israel-based startup is the latest looking to produce milk without a cow or any other even-toed ungulate. Co-founded by Professor Tamir Tuller of Tel Aviv University, Imagindairy is looking at ways to use bioengineered yeast cells to produce milk proteins for milk and cheese products.
Each year, the world produces over 840 million tonnes of milk. Not only is the white stuff consumed by the glass, it's also the source for a remarkable range of products, including cheeses, yogurts, butter, and various kinds of cream. It's even used as fertilizer, paint, and fabrics.
However, there is a trend to move away from milk due to environmental, ethical, or health concerns. Unfortunately, many plant-based milk substitutes have their own drawbacks – not the least of which is that many people find their taste unpleasant.
Imagindairy's answer is to use bioengineered yeast to not only eliminate the middlecow, but also as a way to improve upon conventional milk by eliminating cholesterol, lactose, and somatic cells. Though not yet ready for market, the company says that the final product will have to have the color, smell, and taste of cow-based milk.
It's part of a general trend to find ways to replace animal products with non-animal versions, but this is very different from plant-based meat substitutes and lab-grown meats because it doesn't involve the use of any animal cells or tissues.
At the moment, the company is working with the Strauss Company to use milk proteins produced by yeast to make cheese – an approach similar to that employed by California-based Perfect Day Inc., which instead uses fungi as the microflora to produce the proteins. Imagindairy's process is based on a decade of research in using biophysical simulations, computational modeling of molecular evolution, and machine learning to create models of gene expression as a way to induce yeast cells to produce proteins from another organism cheaply and efficiently.
Most people are familiar with the idea that DNA is the blueprint of life, but it's much more complicated than a simple set of flatpack-like instructions on how to build a baby or a geranium. It's also a matter of how this code is put into effect via gene expression. For example, to create proteins, the order, timing, and speed with which a gene is activated can produce very different results. In fact, without gene expression, a DNA sequence may remain completely dormant. Imagindairy points out that companies have been using gene expression to create proteins for medicines, vaccines, energy, and food by transferring genes from one organism to another for years.
"Theoretically, we can reach a situation in which we can't tell the difference between cow's milk that comes from a cow and cow's milk that comes from yeast," says Tuller. "But in order for that to happen in an economical way, we must turn the yeast cells into efficient factories that produce milk proteins – not a simple challenge to solve. Even though we know what the genes that encode the proteins for cow's milk are, those genes are written in the language of cow cells, and need to be rewritten in the language of yeast. This will make the production of the milk proteins possible in an appropriate, affordable, and efficient way in the yeast cell factory.
"There have already been attempts to produce milk from microflora, but the price of producing milk in this way was a far cry from being affordable. I believe that we are on the right path, and within a fairly short time, we will be able to prepare in our own homes, toast with yellow cheese that was made from yeast and not from cow's milk, without having paid any more for it."