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Biohackers Are Trying to Modify Yeast to Make Vegan Cheese That Doesn't Suck

A team of citizen scientists hope bacteria can do our bidding to make the gouda of the future.

Image: Counter Culture Labs

Most of my vegan friends are down with veggie burgers and vegan confections, but vegan cheeses are a nonstarter—they just don't compare to the real thing. But that might change soon. A group of biohackers in Oakland are working on a project that would create "real" vegan cheese that's essentially identical to cow's cheese, using genetically-engineered yeast to make the crucial ingredients.

It's certainly not a crazy idea, not when there are people out there who want to make Kanye West salami. And, in theory, it may not be that tall of a task. Creating cruelty-free hamburgers is certainly possible, but it's fairly difficult and potentially expensive to create lab-grown meat. Modifying standard baker's yeast to express milk protein, however, shouldn't be too tough a task. 

Craig Rouskey, a member of a team called the San Francisco Bay Area iGEM Team that operates at Counter Culture Labs and BioCurious (lots of layers to those two), tells me that he hopes to have cruelty-free cheese whipped up in a lab by October. "I think the finished product is going to taste like Gouda," he said.

The team is well on its way to getting its Indiegogo campaign funded, and thinks it could have non-FDA-approved cheese ready to sell by the end of the year. It will be marked "not for human consumption until it can get approval, which could take considerably longer.

Considering that Rouskey's last project was one that sought to eradicate gonorrhea forever, making a lab-grown cheese seems like a much more attainable task.

Like other plans to turn bacteria into food producers, the plan calls for the yeast (a fungi, but same idea) to be genetically modified to produce something it normally wouldn't make. In this case, it's a milk protein, which the team says is the "important part of milk when it comes to cheese."

"We're taking genetic sequence from milk protein from cow DNA and producing cheese protein genes that function in yeast," the group said in its Indiegogo video. "We then insert the cheese protein genes to living yeast cells. The genetically modified yeast will produce cheese protein as it grows, and raw cheese protein can then be extracted and separated from the yeast."

From there, it's pretty much smooth sailing. The protein is combined with a fat (vegetable butter), vegan sugar, and water to create something resembling a "vegan milk," which can then be turned into gouda, parmesan, and other types of cheese. They even have vague plans to make cheese using human milk protein, which the team admits sounds a bit gross but could be healthier because of the proteins it contains.

Rouskey says that the team has already met with several vegan cheese manufacturers, who say they're interested in marketing the product and potentially taking it through the FDA-approval process if the team can pull it off. Scaling up is obviously going to be a challenge, but making the cheese in the first place is a step toward saying gouda bye to relying on animals for cheese (insert groan here).