Designing real vegan cheese

Synthetic biology surely can get weirder — but this is a great start.


I don’t think I will ever get tired of quoting Drew Endy’s “keep synthetic biology weird.” One of my favorite articles in the new issue of Biocoder is on the Real Vegan Cheese project.

If you’ve ever tried any of the various vegan cheese substitutes, they are (to put it kindly) awful. The missing ingredient in these products is the milk proteins, or caseins. And of course you can’t use real milk proteins in a vegan product.

But proteins are just organic compounds that are produced, in abundance, by any living cell. And synthetic biology is about engineering cell DNA to produce whatever proteins we want. That’s the central idea behind the Real Vegan Cheese project: can we design yeast to produce the caseins we need for cheese, without involving any animals? There’s no reason we can’t. Once we have the milk proteins, we can use traditional processes to make the cheese. No cows (or sheep, or goats) involved, just genetically modified yeast. And you never eat the yeast; they stay behind at the brewery.

Once we can make cheese, we can go further: is it possible to engineer the proteins to remove allergens? Can we go a step further to truly exotic cheeses? The Real Vegan Cheese project quickly reached its $15,000 funding goal on Indiegogo. The stretch goal (a not-too-ambitious $20,000) is to produce narwhal cheese by synthesizing narwhal milk proteins. No narwhals involved.

Real vegan narwhal cheese? Well, I’m sure synthetic biology can get weirder — but this is a great start. I’m looking forward to tasting some.

The Summer 2014 edition of BioCoder is now available for free download.

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