lab guy

A team of DIYBio enthusiasts are currently working on a project to make “real vegan cheese” using synthetic biology. The team is made up of members of Counter Culture Labs and BioCurious, DIYBio labs in Oakland and Sunnyvale, respectively. They’re currently raising money on IndieGoGo.

Real Vegan Cheese is a not a cheese substitute! It all begins with regular old baker’s yeast. Through synthetic biology, we engineer our yeast to become milk-protein factories, churning out real milk proteins (known as caseins). These milk proteins are then combined with water, vegan sugar and oil to make a kind of milk which is ultimately converted into Real Vegan Cheese using the age-old cheese-making process.

Patrik D’haseleer further explained the difference between their effort and the current swath of vegan cheeses that are in grocery stores:

It’s like the difference between a veggie burger, and one of those “in vitro meat” burgers that a number of companies are working on right now: one is a blend of veggies, grains and beans engineered to be somewhat reminiscent of meat; the other is actual real meat, although not grown on a cow…All the current vegan cheese on the market are made from nuts or some other plant-based substitute, with various flavors added to it to better approximate the taste of “real” cheese.

Our cheese will be made from the exact same protein that is found in cheese made from cow’s milk. That’s why we’re calling it “Real” Vegan Cheese. In fact, if we chose to add lactose and butter fat, it would be chemically indistinguishable from cow’s milk cheese. And it could in fact be made into any of the huge variety of different cheeses that cheesemakers have developed over the centuries.

Of course, since we are designing everything from scratch, we don’t need to settle for making something that is chemically indistinguishable from real cheese. We will replace lactose with some other type of sugar that is digestible by the lactose intolerant, and yet can also be used to grow the various bacterial cultures that give different types of cheeses their distinctive taste. We can replace the butter fat with vegetable fats that are animal-friendly and possibly better for your health. We can even replace some of the specific casein proteins that people tend to develop allergies against with lower-allergenicity naturally occurring versions of those proteins — or even with the human version that should be the least allergenic of them all.

In addition to its general impressiveness, there are three elements of the project worth noting:

1) Notice the $2 “Tell Us Why We’re Wrong” pledge level. I love that idea! I think it’s a wonderful way to create a healthy conversation around the project. Synthetic biology, especially when it’s mixed with DIYBio, has a way of bringing out strong opinions. Putting a $2 price tag on a reply is a great way to filter out the important dialogue.

2) This is the first year that the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is allowing entries from community biolabs, instead of just academic institutions. This is a big deal! It means that anyone, no matter your experience, can participate. The “real vegan cheese” team is a harbinger of many creative ideas to come.

3) Wondering why they aren’t offering the cheese as a campaign reward? Check out the great explanations in the FAQ section. Part of their reasoning:

We will need to do some more research on exactly how to follow all FDA regulations regarding foods generated using genetically engineered organisms. If we can achieve a sufficiently purified product, show that it does not contain any foreign DNA or living organisms, and produce everything in suitable facilities, then we believe that we will be able to safely and legally produce cheese for consumption. Until we meet all those requirements, all cheese protein we produce will be clearly labeled as “Not for Human Consumption”.