Inside the Ethical Cheese Lab 

Oakland biohackers are manufacturing the first-ever vegan cheese product made from genetically modified yeast.

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When meat-eaters or vegetarians try to go vegan, cheese is often one of the hardest foods to give up. But there are a number of environmental and ethical reasons to remove cheese from your diet. Cows are often fed antibiotics and growth hormones and are frequently mistreated on factory farms. Cattle also produce large amounts of methane that pollute the environment. And most cheeses are made with rennet, an enzyme that causes the milk to coagulate and is typically sourced from the stomachs of slaughtered calves.

These are a few of the many concerns driving the latest initiative of Counter Culture Labs, an Oakland-based group that is now working to manufacture a food called "Real Vegan Cheese." Though it may sound like a cooking project, this vegan product is unlike any cheese that has ever been produced before — and the Counter Culture Labs members aren't chefs. The group is made up of biohackers, meaning citizen scientists and do-it-yourself biologists who engage in a wide range of biology and biotech projects. And Real Vegan Cheese is foremost a biohacking experiment — one that the founders say could carry serious implications for food production if successful. Simply put, instead of using cows for milk, the group is working to genetically alter yeast to produce a milk protein that would then be used for cheese production. The first phase of the project is now underway, and the team hopes to have completed production of an edible vegan cheese by fall.

"The yeast is making an animal protein, but it's not from animals," explained Craig Rouskey, a Counter Culture Labs member and molecular biologist and biohacker.

Here's how it works: The team will insert bovine DNA — which is chemically synthesized and does not come from an animal — into living baker's yeast cells, temporarily turning the yeast into a so-called "protein factory" that produces milk protein. The biohackers then extract that protein from the yeast and combine it with water, vegetable butter, and vegan sugar (instead of lactose), to make a milk substitute. Finally, this vegan milk can be turned into Real Vegan Cheese in the same way that normal cheese is produced from cow milk. The final food product will be a semi-hard cheese like Gouda. It will be totally vegan — and lactose-free.

"No animal is tortured in the production of this," said Counter Culture Labs member Ahnon Milham, who is vegan. "You don't have to worry about all the hormones and antibiotics."

This product technically would not be any more vegan than existing vegan cheeses, which are typically made from sources such as nuts and soy. But Real Vegan Cheese, Milham explained, would much more closely resemble dairy cheese in taste, texture, and consistency, since it is derived from the same protein that makes up dairy cheese. "I could eat cheese again. That is so cool," Milham added.

The team, a loosely organized group of about thirty people, has been collaborating for several months and recently retrieved DNA sequences, kicking off the project's first phase. The concept is gaining steam as Counter Culture Labs is preparing to move into its own permanent Oakland location later this summer. Since launching in November 2012, the group has worked out of Sudo Room, a popular hackerspace in Uptown Oakland, and BioCurious, a nonprofit biotech hackerspace in Sunnyvale. The group also just launched an Indiegogo campaign (Indiegogo.com/projects/real-vegan-cheese) for Real Vegan Cheese; in the fall, the team will submit its invention as part of an annual synthetic biology competition called the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM).

"The really awesome thing about doing cheese this way is it's a renewable source of cheese," said Rouskey. "We're not going out to harvest nuts to do this. We're not using cows that are totally polluting the environment. We are actually using a closed system."

In other words, once the process is refined, the team could continue to produce cheese from yeast with virtually no environmental impact. And it's sustainable so long as the group can continue to grow the modified yeast, he said. While the team doesn't have immediate plans to sell the product, Rouskey said he hopes to eventually create DIY cheese-making kits — similar to ones that already exist for winemaking and beer brewing — so that anyone can grow vegan cheese at home.

"I'm really most excited about democratization of science, teaching people about genetic engineering," said Patrik D'haeseleer, another Counter Culture Labs member. "You can actually do these things yourself." He added: "A lot of people have lots of fears around [genetically modified foods] without really understanding what they are."

Rouskey, however, noted that the genetic engineering behind Real Vegan Cheese is very different from the modifications done by agrochemical corporations like Monsanto, because the Counter Culture Labs team is not permanently modifying an organism, but rather adapting an existing process to produce a specific protein. "We're trying to work with nature," he said. The group has considered putting some kind of "ethical GMO" label on Real Vegan Cheese. "Any sort of genetic engineering or genetic modification is left outside of ... the final product," he said.

In other words, Milham added, "You won't be eating GMOs."

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