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Biohackers crowdfund milk-protein vegan cheese, minus the cows

A vegan-cheese project on Indiegogo aims to replicate cheese from cows' milk without involving any mammals.

sage derby cheese
This sage Derby cheese may someday be replaced with a vegan alternative.Jon Sulivan

Cheese is one of the harder foods to replicate in vegan form, as it's a challenge to match traditional cheeses when it comes to taste, texture, and melting ability. While many vegan cheeses use soy milk rather than animal milk, a group of "biohackers" is planning to skip the soy and instead make cheese from real milk proteins, without ever involving a cow, goat, or sheep.

The Real Vegan Cheese project on Indiegogo brings together biohackers from San Francisco Bay Area groups Counter Culture Labs and BioCurious. The idea is to harness baker's yeast and turn the little critters into milk-protein factories. Those milk proteins (called caseins) will be mixed with water, vegan sugar, and oil, creating a sort of vegan milk. The vegan cheese will then be made using traditional cheese-crafting methods. The hope is that cheese made with this process will closely resemble regular dairy cheese.

The project team explains what makes this workable: "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."

Real Vegan Cheese is more than $13,000 toward a $15,000 flexible-funding goal with 34 days left to go. There are some creative pledge levels. A mere $2 gives you the opportunity to send the team a note about your concerns or arguments against the project, to which the biohackers will respond online. One $10,000 pledge is available, which gives you naming rights to the new vegan cheese.

The project's results will be available under free and open licenses, though the team cautions that the research and development phase could be extensive. Any cheese the project makes will be labeled "not for human consumption" until certain requirements are met. "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," the team writes.

The biohackers say the cheese, if successful, will be suitable for people with lactose intolerance. They are also open to investigating using the modified yeast process to make human milk proteins for cheese, though they acknowledge not everyone will find this appetizing.

If the Real Vegan Cheese project works out and can scale up, it 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.