Forget Fake Meat…How About Fake Milk?

Move over, soy—a group of bio-hackers is trying to turn snippets of DNA into milk-producing yeast

Milk and Cheese
the food passionates/Corbis

Vegans have long been on the hunt for a substitute for cheese. There’s just one problem—cheese made from cow’s milk is so delicious, it’s hard to forego. But what if you were able to reproduce the things that make cheese so toothsome without getting cows involved at all? Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen reports on a group of DIY bio-hackers who are trying to turn snippets of DNA into real milk…no cows necessary.

Wohlsen reports that at Oakland, California’s biotech hacker space Counter Culture Labs, a group of scientists is attempting to make cow’s milk (and cheese) while leaving the cow out of the equation. The concept is simple, but intriguing: Use mail-order DNA to fool yeast cells to make milk proteins, then turn that milk into cheese.

“What we’re making is identical to the animal protein,” chemist Benjamin Rupert tells Wohlsen. He’s part of a team that isn’t satisfied with vegan cheeses, which lack a certain something when compared to cheese made from cow’s milk. Rather than use soy, almond milk or another vegan substitute for their animal-free cheese, they identified a series of 11 proteins fundamental to cow’s milk, Wohlsen writes:

The next step is to take custom-fabricated snippets of DNA—genetic material that carries the instructions for synthesizing milk’s proteins—and insert them into plain old baker’s yeast.

Then they put the yeast into a bioreactor—a fancy term for a fermenter—and there, they soak it in a broth of nutrients and sugar. It’s technology humans have used for centuries to make beer: Feed carbohydrates to yeast, which in turn excrete alcohol. Only these modified yeast don’t excrete alcohol. They excrete milk.

If the experiment works, the team will still face a few hurdles on the road from mail-order DNA to authentically delicious cheese. Next, they will have to hack the animal-based lactose and animal fats that give cheese its heft and texture and figure out how to make the cheese taste great.

Along the way, they’ll face questions of bioethics and plenty of skepticism. When is milk no longer milk? Is hacked food safe to make and eat? Will bioengineered, cow-less milk fly with consumers? They’ll also have to stave off plenty of competition, like a new wave of nut-based cheeses that use age-old cheesemaking techniques.

Whether or not the experiment works, writes Wohlsen, carefully engineered foods are the wave of the future. “We’re approaching a world where the divide between the “natural” and the “artificial” collapses, where amateurs in their kitchens can fiddle with life to make edible substances that are both artisanal and the most radically processed foods ever made,” he writes. Translation: watch out, cows...your days of cheese dominance could be numbered.