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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  • Obbie Z

    And how do you make this acceptable to those who have ethical problems with the use of genetically modified organisms? Those who have a problem with caseins from animals are sure to have an even bigger problem with caseins from GM yeast.

  • Gemma Seymour

    Using industrially produced synthetic food substitutes seems contra to the vegan ethos, in my opinion. Like, congratulations, you didn’t exploit an animal, but you exploited a vast array of natural resources and people, and polluted the environment just so you could feel smug about your “real vegan cheese”. Good one. What are you going to feed the yeast, anyway? An agricultural product? How many animals will die to produce the feedstock? You do realise that agriculture displaces animals from their natural habitats and even kills them, right? #facepalm

    • Stevil Chemsit

      Yeast like carbs and those are plentiful since they are the main energy storage units for plsnts. You can grow yeast in a vat, like we do for beer, kombucha, etc… The environmental impact is minuscule to growing any other food crop, because yeast can digest all kinds of carbs we cant.

      This type if food technology is a big win on all fronts. In the future the more food we can grow I n vats in closed loop systems the better for the planet.

      • Obbie Z

        Yeah, and when (“when”, not “if”, see Murphy’s Law) those mutant yeast escape into the wild, what could possibly go wrong?

        That was a rhetorical question. Anyone who says “nothing will go wrong” is a BS-ing industry apologist, and “I don’t know” is a good reason to keep this genie in the bottle. An apocalyptic sci-fi scenario is not out of the question, as these carb-loving escaped yeast start gorging themselves on the carbs WE want, such as corn, wheat, rice, forests,…..

        • Stevil Chemsit

          Erm.. Sci-fi is short for “Science Fiction.” As the name implies sci-fi are made up stories and should not be used to evaluate real scientific innovation. It’s dangerous to do so, ie. High doses of Gamma radiation will not turn you green and give you super strength; you will just die from radiation poisoning.

          What the yeast eat is not being modified, it’s what they are pooping out and we have been doing this for at least 30 years to make all kinds of medicine and nutrients that we would have laboriously gotten from animals, like synthetic Human insulin (vs pig insulin). And we are injecting that into people. They are not turning into mutants, but actually are living healthy lives.

          It’s really not a difficult concept. DNA encodes proteins. It takes 3 “letters”. We know the DNA code for casein based on it’s amino acid sequence. We make that DNA sequence that encodes casein and add it to a DNA sequence of another protein the yeast normally makes like an enzyme. Then we cleave the casein protein from the normal protein and separate it.

          And no they won’t gobble up rainforests. It’s very convenient for you name call people who disagree with you, rather than actually open a book to understand how the science works.

          Next time you feel like binge streaming walking dead, trying something crazy and read about how real science works.