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Bio-Hackers Are Using Human DNA To Make Vegan Cheese

The process of making dairy cheese isn't always ethically rosy. One San Francisco-based bio-hacker group is currently working on synthesizing a cheese product from bovine and human caseins. We spoke to them to find out what the hell is going on here.
September 2, 2014, 4:30pm
Photo courtesy of Real Vegan Cheese

Vegan cheese doesn't have a great reputation, which is fair, considering it's a creepy and gross impersonation of the greatest food group in the universe.Unfortunately, the process of making beautiful dairy cheese isn't always ethically rosy. As a result, a lot of people skip consuming it altogether. But for those taking the vegan route, it's a life resigned to unnatural and often unhealthy substitutes.


Thankfully, Real Vegan Cheese, a team of San Franciscan bio-hackers are attempting to offer an alternative by working to create an authentic cheese without the involvement of animals. The plan: to involve synthetically expressing casein genes—a milk protein and major component of cheese—and placing them into the form of normal bakers yeast. From there, the yeast goes into a bioreactor where it'll secrete the protein into a solution that will be purified to a point where there are no genetically engineered or animal organisms left. That pure solution is then mixed with a vegan lactose replacement, water, and vegan oil to create something that's close enough to milk to be able to make cheese from.

Even though the process begins with a teeny, tiny part of animal matter, none of it will remain in the final product. The whole process is not only insanely complicated, but also challenges the definitions of "vegan" and "cheese" in general. We spoke to team leader, Marc Juul, to try to understand what the hell going on here.

MUNCHIES: To be totally clear, you start by extracting bovine DNA right? Marc Juul: We don't actually do that extraction. We're working with a few different versions—bovine and human—we're getting the DNA from online databases that already have all the sequences.


Above, a scientist purifies proteins.

Wait, human DNA? Why would you make human cheese? We're not sure whether there'll be a taste or texture difference, but we're pretty sure there will be a health difference. There are people who are allergic to bovine caseins and not human. The human version should provoke our immune systems less.

So it'll be good for vegans and the lactose intolerant? Yeah. If you want to make something that doesn't have an immune reaction in humans, you want to use something that's close to what humans naturally have. The reason we did the cows on top of that is because we quickly estimated a lot of people would have a bad reaction to the idea of eating something from human milk.


Cool. Let's talk about how something can be vegan if it starts with animal DNA. It's an interesting question. It'll be up to the people who buy it to decide for themselves if it's vegan. For me, the only thing transferred from the animal is information and information can be duplicated endlessly. So maybe there has been some animal involvement in the past, but we have this information now so we never have to bother an animal again. That's vegan enough.

You'd assume a vegan market would want to know how that animal was treated. We're not having anything to do with any animals, nor are we paying anyone to have anything to do with the animals. We're only using online, freely available, genetic information from animals and only dealing with bacteria and yeast in our experiments.


A duckling and "yeast" milk, courtesy of the Real Vegan Cheese team.

Is this stage is the process considerably more complicated than making traditional cheese? If we get the results we're looking for, it'll be less complicated. Instead of keeping and taking care of animals, you only have yeast to take care of. There is a purification process, but purification versus farming. It's debatable what's more complicated, though.

Will you realistically be able to make commercial amounts of this cheese? Will it be affordable? Yes. Whether or not it'll be cheaper than normal cheese we haven't worked that out yet. But it is certainly possible to make it more environmentally friendly than normal cheese. We can disregard a lot of the factors involved with cows like methane emissions. We expect our bioreactor emissions to be less than from cows, and because they're not free ranging, we can purify, contain, and deal with the methane in a graceful way.


Considering it's created in a lab, is there a possibility of it being developed as a large-scale renewable food source similar to Soylent? It doesn't require the kind of acreage that cows do. It's an interesting question and one that could be possible. I don't see anything standing in the way of that.

We talked about if it is or isn't vegan, but when it is created using such complex techniques, can we really consider it cheese? That's also an interesting question philosophically and ethically, but also legally. A lot of countries have laws that prevent you calling something cheese that doesn't come from a certain subset of foods. But is it cheese? I think it is. I think we're getting so close to the microscopic structure of cheese that we're replicating the essence of cheese. But if someone feels it's not pure enough or close enough to cheese, and wants to recreate the entire microscopic structure of cheese, all our resources sonos are open and people can take it and improve upon it until they get something that is exactly the same.


Modern cheesemaking

What will your cheese taste like? We have some idea that it'll probably taste the same as normal cheese. The thing we're less certain about is the consistency. The lactic acid bacteria should work on the sugars to create a flavor profile that—along with the aging—will be the same. The one thing that won't be the same is the fats. Using vegetable fats, it's very difficult to get one that matches butter fat in taste—as anyone who buys vegan butter will know. You can get close but I'm more concerned with how it will affect the consistency. If we can't recreate the same mouth feel of cheese, we'll have to create butter fat using the same method and it'll be a whole other process.

That's crazy. So can you make all kinds of cheeses? The project itself is making the part of milk that becomes cheese. We can make anything you would with those parts of milk, which is almost all of them.

How has the reaction been? From the existing vegans we've got an overwhelmingly positive response. We were worried people wouldn't like the genetic engineering aspect of what we're doing. Working out of the Bay Area, we might be seeing things from a certain perspective. I don't think we've reached the general population yet, so we've yet to see the full reaction.

So no detractors? A few people questioned whether it'll be financially viable or worth the effort. They say keeping animals in an ethically responsible way is probably a better alternative.

When people think about genetic engineering, they often picture evil Monsanto scientists. Do you think the media is overly negative in their coverage of science like this? Like any technology, it can be good and evil. Until now, I think only bigger organizations with lots of money had full access to this technology. Now we have community labs where bio-hackers have access to this technology. We're hoping people from grassroots organizations can figure out how to use this technology and explore the things that are good and positive about it.