The problem with a lot of vegan cheese is that it's just not very cheesy. You know: gooey, melty, bubbly. Vegan cheese, with a few notable exceptions (Kite Hill, for example) tends toward rubbery.
Well, now a team of a dozen Bay Area scientists is working to biohack a vegan cheese that can be made into a wide variety of flavors and textures.
The team, composed of people from BioCurious in Sunnyvale and Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, is engineering baker’s yeast to produce what they call Real Vegan Cheese. Unlike other vegan cheeses, which are usually made from vegetable products, Real Vegan Cheese would be exactly the same as milk-based cheese on a molecular level. The idea is to engineer baker's yeast to produce protein molecules that are identical to the protein molecules from milk.
Cheese starts off when you increase the acidity of milk by adding acids or bacteria. Then add the enzyme rennet to the sour milk, and the milk will form curds and release the liquid as whey. The curds are made into cheese after being pressed into shapes, aged, and processed in a variety of different ways. This is where the art of cheese making comes into play.
The method for making Real Vegan Cheese would be almost identical. The proteins usually found in milk would be produced synthetically using baker’s yeast, and then combined with water, sugars and vegetable fats to come up with a substitute milk.
“You would be able to make all the same kinds of cheeses that you can make with regular milk," says Patrik D’haeseleer, a mentor for the team.
D’haeseleer says modifying baker’s yeast to create milk protein is a straightforward scientific process. And it won't involve any animals, or even any milk.
The team gets synthetic genes that are replicas of the genes responsible for making milk proteins. Then it's a genetic engineering job that involves injecting those synthetic genes into the cells of baker’s yeast. The yeast will then make that same protein normally made in milk.
“If we do our job well we could make something that’s chemically indistinguishable from actual cheese,” D’haeseleer says.
That could be of interest to people who are unable to eat cheese; some genetically predisposed individuals lack the enzyme lactase that is responsible for breaking down the lactose in dairy products.
“As long as there is no lactose in it," says UC Davis nutritionist Francene Steinberg, "it may very well be a very good alternative for those who are lactose intolerant."
The end product will also be GMO-free. The baker’s yeast itself will be modified to host the genes that grow the proteins, but the protein product of those genes will be pure -- the same protein product, the same molecules, that the genes produce in milk.
D’heaseleer notes a very similar process is already used to produce the enzyme rennet artificially -- rennet is found naturally in calves’ stomachs.
D’haeseleer says he was surprised at first that the project received strong support from the vegan community. “You tend to think of vegans, organic, anti-GMO in the same sentence” he said, “but I think this community simply has a much higher fraction of people who are used to thinking about what they eat in a very rational and scientific way."
Not to mention people who think about what they eat in terms of taste. "We have some vegetarians who wish they could be vegan if there was better cheese around," D'haeseleer says.
The project is a contribution to iGEM, an international synthetic biology competition traditionally held for undergraduate teams. This year, the competition was opened to community teams without an academic affiliation, and the Real Vegan Cheese team decided to use the competition as motivation.
Currently the project is funded by donations through Indiegogo. After it gets past the first stages, the team will need to find a way to produce artificial proteins on a large scale, D'haeseleer says. “Once we show that we can actually make these proteins in the lab we will have to do a lot of work scaling up that project and making it economically feasible.”
Especially if, as is their hope, Real Vegan Cheese is to be on grocery store shelves in 2016.