Johan Sosa takes a small plastic vial out of an industrial laboratory freezer. Pointing to a long string of letters on the label, he explains that a gravel-size pellet inside the vial contains the DNA of cow's milk protein.
"There are millions of [genes] in here," Sosa says.
Sosa belongs to a team of biohackers, or do-it-yourself scientists, working on a project they call Real Vegan Cheese. Their aim: to replicate cow's milk, without the cow. The idea is pretty straightforward. Synthesize the milk-protein DNA, insert that genetic blueprint into yeast and let the yeast go to work, processing the protein to produce milk.
"It's basically taking on the role of the cow," Sosa says.
The two milks should taste the same because they'll be molecularly identical, which means you can pour the lab-grown version over cereal, stir it into coffee and ferment it to create real cheese.
"My goal is there will be no way to distinguish it from the bovine molecule," says Sosa. In other words, it will be actual cow's milk, not some sort of soy, almond or rice substitute.
Real Vegan Cheese is part of a growing movement of scientists and companies "culturing" real animal products, with no animals required. Clara Foods is fabricating chicken eggs. Modern Meadow is growing leather. And a group of scientists in the Netherlands is researching ways to produce in-vitro hamburgers.
Though lab-grown food might seem like something out of science fiction, it could have some very real-world benefits. Livestock factory farming uses 30 percent of the Earth's land surface, for example, and contributes to more than 18 percent of global greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations.
Want beef? Almost 1,800 gallons of fresh water for drinking, feed irrigation and processing go into one pound of beef, according to National Geographic. Lab-grown food, on the other hand, requires far less land and water, and emits less greenhouse gas compared with raising livestock, according to a study by the University of Oxford.
"It's insane how complicated it is to get a glass of milk, if you were to look at the entire supply chain," says Gilonne d'Origny, chief operating officer of New Harvest, which funds research into lab-grown food. "It's too resource-intensive for what it is."
If we really are what we eat, lab-grown food might make us healthier by reducing the impact of pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and hormones on our diets. That could become increasingly important in the coming years. The UN expects worldwide demand for meat to double between 2000 and 2050.
"They say if you like sausages, you shouldn't find out how they're made," Sosa says. "We want you to know exactly how it's made."
Where's the beef?
While Real Vegan Cheese is on its way to creating cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan, Dutch scientist Mark Post has been perfecting the hamburger.
Working out of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Post first made a splash in 2013 when Google co-founder Sergey Brin revealed he'd forked over $330,000 to fund Post's first lab-grown burger. In this case, Post is using stem cells from bovine muscle tissue and then coaxing those cells to replicate in a petri dish.
"We are also culturing fat tissue, which comes from cows themselves," Post says. "This is important because of the taste."
One of Post's first burgers was cooked and sampled by two food critics in front of a live television audience in 2013 after Brin bankrolled the project. During the tasting, one panelist pronounced, "This is meat to me."
"It tasted like a hamburger, but not a particularly good one," Post says. Still, "it was much better than any vegetarian substitute that I had tasted before."
Post is still fine-tuning his cultured burgers, and he estimates it'll be another five years at least before they hit the supermarket. And when they do, they'll be expensive. Prices are likely to drop, he says, as meat from a lab becomes more widely available. But will people eat it?
Some people may have an "ew" reaction when they think of meat grown in a petri dish. In fact, the food has been called everything from "schmeat" to "test tube burgers" to "Frankenmeat."
Beyond the yuck factor, the lab-grown-food movement has also been criticized for potentially displacing farmworkers or creating products that will be too expensive. Some vegetarians say it's still meat, even if it is grown in the lab, and that's not healthy. Others say high-tech foods won't necessarily help the planet.
"If we're really concerned about the environment, public health and protecting animal welfare, then I don't know if this is the best way to do it," says Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a think tank focused on sustainable agriculture. "Silver bullet solutions just don't work. You need a variety of things, and this might be part of the tool kit."
Despite its detractors, the lab-grown-food sector is growing quickly. Along with Brin, other big-name backers include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
"The global food supply chain is a multitrillion-dollar industry," says Arvind Gupta, founder of IndieBio, an accelerator that exclusively funds synthetic-biology startups. "That's the market we're thinking about disrupting."
Back in the lab, Sosa checks on some test tubes being gently rocked and warmed in an incubator. The shaking helps the yeast inside the test tubes grow faster, Sosa says. Once the mixture multiplies, Sosa will put it through a series of tests to see how it stacks up against cow's milk. Sosa and his colleagues will then tinker with their recipe and repeat the process until they get it right.
They're hopeful. A Real Vegan Cheese product could come out in late 2016, says Sosa.
"I think it's scientifically feasible -- otherwise I wouldn't be doing it," he says. "In the future, it might be possible to produce many of the things we eat without taking up resources from the Earth."
This story appears in the winter 2015 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.
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