Our indiegogo campaign has ended, and the funding we raised will allow us to demonstrate the feasibility of producing Real Vegan Cheese from baker's yeast. But it will be a long road from there to putting Real Vegan Cheese on the shelves.
All stretch goals achieved!
We are a team of experienced biohackers from the Bay Area biohacker spaces Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, CA and BioCurious in Sunnyvale, CA. Together, we are engineering regular baker's yeast to produce the world's first real vegan cheese protein and from there, the worlds first Real Vegan Cheese!
What is Real Vegan Cheese?
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.
How can yeast produce milk protein?
To create our proteins, we study animal genomes to find natural milk-protein genetic sequences. We optimize the genes for use in yeast and synthesize the resulting yeast milk protein DNA from scratch. This DNA is then put into yeast cells where the cellular machinery takes over and produces real milk-protein from the DNA blueprint provided by us. No animal products involved. Plus the purified proteins will be identical to those found in regular cheese, and will not contain any GMO!
Want to hear more hard-core science?
Drink straight from the fire hose over at our Wiki! Learn all about casein micelles, the different casein proteins and their genetic variants, why casein kinase is not the kinase that acts on casein, our plans for vegan lactose substitutes, and more. And feel free to ask us questions in the Comments section...
Why Real Vegan Cheese?
We believe that using animals as large-scale food production machines is ethically and environmentally irresponsible.
We believe that our process is more ethically responsible and environmentally sustainable than the status quo.
We believe that all humans, vegans included, should have access to delicious and healthy cheese!
What We Need & What You Get
The work we do can be expensive, but the rewards will be great! If funding for this project is successful, we will be able to create variants of baker's yeast that produce the four milk-proteins needed for cheese, then purify the proteins and make the worlds first Real Vegan Cheese! All of our research will be made available on our wiki as it happens and will be licensed under free and open licenses. All patentable technology will be released into the public domain. The team consists of 100% unpaid volunteers so all of the funding from this campaign will go toward the cost of materials, equipment and physical space.
3D printed Jewelry Perks
Here are some previews of the 3D printed jewelry we are working on. Feedback welcome!
Cheesy Flask Earrings with our cheese-in-a-flask logo, and the original Curd Nerd Jewelry: a 3D printed model of the protein structure of chymosin, the enzyme in rennet that causes milk to coagulate into cheese curds. Both a little over 1" in size (3cm), and available at the $50 level.
We've also tried some 3D prints in solid metal of the chymosin enzyme. We really love the gold plated version on the left, but at the slightly larger size (~3/4 inch) that you see for the nickel plated one on the right. Metal prints are a bit more expensive, so we're offering this one at $70. Looks and feels a bit like a gold nugget.
Finally, if you're a huge fan of wearing your science next to your heart - here's a 3-tier pendant showing (1) the Fam20C kinase that is responsible for phosphorylating ceasein proteins so they form micelles, (2) the chymosin enzyme that cleaves one of the caseisn to coagulate milk, and (3) the Kappa casein that is cleaved by chymosin and is the lynchpin in cheese making. Note that these proteins structures of the human Fam20C and Kappa casein were worked out by our own team!
Here is a preview of our T-shirt designs. Note that we've added a new Exclusive perk for our Narwhal stretch goal! Only available until we hit our $20K goal, so get them while they're hot!
We're looking to add a cool slogan to these T-shirts, and we'd love your input - so post your ideas in the Comments section.
The Real Vegan Cheese project is open to collaborators of all skill levels and from all walks of life. In October we will be entering our Real Vegan Cheese project into the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) synthetic biology competition. We are excited to be part of a larger global community consisting of students and biohackers from over 30 countries!
We live in an unsustainable world. The cheese we eat today is produced by commercial dairy cows which, though they produce delicious milk and cheese, have an exceptionally large carbon footprint. Even the U,N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the world's 1.5 billion cows emit dozens of polluting gases, including large amounts of methane. This methane gas is a leading contributor to global warming!
By creating an alternative pathway to cheese, we help the environment, increase access to tasty and healthy food, and support people who have already committed themselves to a smaller personal carbon footprint.
Our team of scientists have an amazing reputation for being passionate contributors to technological and scientific innovation as well as social and environmental justice. We are excited to take this passion into the world and prove that we together through open science can make huge strides in technology while being socially and environmentally responsible. Together we can change the way the world values, creates and consumes cheese.
Not only can we make Real Vegan Cheese that is better for the environment, we can also design it to be better for you:
For each of the four main proteins found in cheese, there are dozens of known genetic variants found in humans and in different breeds of cows. Some of these versions of the proteins are associated with various health benefits, or increased risks of allergic response. We have the opportunity to pick and choose the most desirable variants of these naturally occurring proteins, increasing health benefits and removing allergens.
There are clear health benefits to consuming milk proteins derived from humans versus cow milk proteins. This is made possible by expressing the genes that code for human milk proteins in yeast. Using human genes to make vegan milk may not be appetizing to everyone, so for you folks that love good old-fashioned cow cheeses, we’re also making a vegan cow cheese.
Risks & Challenges
The path to Real Vegan Cheese is not an easy one. The science and cheese-making processes pose certain challenges that must be addressed.
As a health conscious and ecologically responsible collective, we have our own concerns about our process. We do not want to produce food in a way that replicates the shortcomings of some existing Genetic Engineering companies. One of our major challenges will be to evaluate whether the technology we work with is safe. We will need to continually re-evaluate risks and design safe-guards that prevent or limit potential dangers to individuals, humanity or the planet as a whole.
Our Molecular Biology team is focused on creating low-cost solutions to producing cheese protein. Utilizing yeast as protein factories can be challenging. The proteins we want them to produce are complex and designed by nature for animal systems. Yeast have the same internal machinery as cows or goats (or humans) but the cellular machinery is primitive in comparison. To create functional milk-proteins we will have to help yeast perform protein modifications similar to those that occur naturally in animals. In our process we plan to incorporate helpful enzymes that make yeast-derived milk proteins perform like animal milk-proteins. The addition of these animal-inspired enzymes will help our Cheese-Making team produce Real Vegan Cheese!
Stretch Goal #1: Narwhal Cheese at $20K! Achieved!
Ah, Narwal! The horniest of cetaceans. Unicorn of the sea. Carismaticissimo of the charismatic megafauna! Who wouldn't want some narwhal cheese?! If we can make cheese from cow proteins and human proteins - give us a genome sequence and we can make cheese from any mammal. How does narwhal cheese taste? Who knows... But we figured - hey, why not?
Whale milk is actually very interesting - it is extremely high in protein and has an almost toothpaste-like consistency, evolved to be easily passed to the whale calf in an aquatic environment. Studying the narwhal casein genes will also give us a great opportunity to delve into some of the unique properties of whale milk, and the evolutionary adaptations distinguishing land vs marine mammals, and cold-adapted vs warm water whales. The resulting constructs may also be of use for whale research, because they would allow study of in vitro produced whale milk proteins year round.
The narwhal genome has not been sequenced yet, but researchers at the university of California at Santa Cruz are currently out on an expedition to the arctic to study these magnificent marine mammals, and will be working on sequencing the narwhal genome - a key resource for any future conservation efforts of this threatened species. We hope to work with them on the sequencing and analysis of the casein genes.
And if we can do narwhal... can unicorn cheese be far off?
Stretch Goal #2: Large Yeast Bioreactor at $30K - Achieved!
Up until this point, we're essentially doing lab-scale science to figure out how to produce casein proteins from baker's yeast. Think milligram to gram quantities - a couple crumbs of cheese! Scaling up from this proof-of-principle will take a different set of techniques and tools.
A bioreactor is essentially just a temperature controlled vat with a bunch of sensors and other gadgets. Sounds mundane, but it's an essential piece of equipment to grow up big batches of cheesy yeast under carefully controlled conditions. Brand new, large bioreactors can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but we've been keeping an eye out for a decent second-hand model in the 50 liter range that we can refurbish. And as biohackers, we're more than capable to get our hands dirty and build one from scratch too, if needed!
Stretch Goal #3: Professional recording setup - $35K! - Achieved!
We want to document the work we're doing in the lab so everyone can follow along! So far we've been borrowing equipment from our friends when possible, but if we had a high quality cameras and microphones permanently installed in our lab we'd be able to record our experiments and create free and open instructional videos on both lab techniques related to genetic engineering, running bioreactors and cheese science! We also sometimes bring in outside instructors to teach us skills that we're lacking, and this would allow us to share their knowledge with the world. We promise that all of our videos will be released under a free culture Creative Commons license.
Quotes:"Could cause quite a revolution in cheese for both vegans and regular cheese fans who are concerned about the impact of all those dairy cows on the environment." 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."
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it really vegan?
Yes. Our genes are made from scratch to work in yeast, and though they are inspired by mammals, none of the genes, organisms or growth mediums we use have ever been part of an animal.
Will the cheese contain GMOs?
In short: No. While we genetically modify yeast, the yeast itself is not eaten, and the resulting milk-protein is separated from the GMOs before being turned into cheese. This method has been used for many years to produce safe medicines and foods such as insulin and vanilla flavoring. In fact, the rennet used in most cheese today is produced using this same method. This has meant that the old and ethically questionable method of extracting rennet from the stomachs of calves has fallen out of favor.
Will you be eating this cheese?
Eventually, yes - that is the goal. But it may be a while before we reach that point. 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”.
When can we buy your cheese?
Hold your horses! We are still in the Research & Development stage right now - that is what our Indiegogo campaign (and our participation in the iGEM competition) is all about. Once we have proven that we can actually do this, we’ll still need to figure out how to scale up from milligrams to kilograms, and how to produce our cheese in the most food-safe and economical way.
But aren’t you sending out a Real Vegan Cheese as one of your IndieGogo perks?
We hope to brew a big batch of yeast at the end of the project, and have enough cheese protein for one small cheese. Any donor at the “Big Cheese” level will have the option of receiving a cheese made from that batch (likely labeled as “Not for Human Consumption”), assuming we can make enough protein. Or they can choose to receive a cheese-shaped prop made using their own personalized cheese press, and a rain check for our first fully FDA compliant cheese.
What if I'm lactose intolerant, or allergic to milk proteins?
Since we will be producing pure cheese protein, there will be NO lactose in Real Vegan Cheese whatsoever. We will likely be adding some other type of sugar (not lactose), both for flavor, and to feed the bacterial cultures that are used in cheese ripening. Cows milk protein allergy is an entirely different issue from lactose intolerance. Since we have the luxury of engineering everything from scratch, we can choose the least allergenic naturally occurring casein variants from cows or other dairy animals. Even better - we can swap out one or more of the cow proteins for the human version, which should be the least allergenic of all!
Can you mail to my country?
Due to local regulations regarding shipping of DNA, we may not be able to send the Biohacker Special kit to all countries. Please check your local laws!