When I was growing up, a common dairy advertising jingle on the radio went, ‘Cows in Berkeley? Moooo.’
There may not be many cows around the Oakland and Berkeley area, yet there are several people involved with creating cheese at North Oakland’s Counter Culture Labs.
According to the Water Footprint Network, a global group of researchers and professionals dedicated to analyzing the world’s water use, a pound of cheese requires 381 gallons of water to produce.
Even after the Bay Area’s rainy winter, many people recognize that our state is prone to droughts. So molecular biologist Craig Rouskey and others are developing cheeses less reliant on heavy water use.
These ‘vegan cheeses’ aren’t exclusively for vegans. They contain the same proteins as ordinary cheese, but those proteins are produced in a laboratory by yeast cells, rather than from cows raised on a dairy farm. This eliminates the need for the water that goes into growing grass and other plants that become cattle feed.
‘Vegan cheese’ also works around the environmental issues posed by the methane gas cows produce as a result of digestion.
It should taste very similar to regular cheese and also have the same texture and functionality, so it can melt and work for foods such as nachos and grilled cheese sandwiches.
The ‘Vegan Cheese’ is a joint project of Counter Culture Labs and BioCurious, a ‘biology hackerspace’ in the South Bay. All science research there is non-hierarchical, as there are no formal leaders and anyone is welcome to learn and start a project.
The team has already raised over $38,000 through a crowd funding campaign.
Everything involved with the project, including the chance to invest, is open to the public. All of the information on how the cheese is produced is open-source, including the DNA sequences used to produce the cheese’s protein.
That will still be true even after the cheese goes to market as a consumer product, hopefully by the end of 2018.
So far, Rouskey and the small group of people working with him have successfully tinkered with the yeast to produce one of the required proteins for cheese. They hope to produce the remaining three within the next few months and then make the actual cheese.
Along with protein, cheese also contains fats, sugars, and sometimes bacteria and mold, that give it flavor. The fat and sugar for the ‘vegan cheese’ will be derived from sources that are plant-based and also could be healthier than those of regular cheeses.
Rouskey and the team are modifying the genes of yeast organisms in the lab, using the recently developed Crispr/Cas9 technique to remove genes that code for proteins that interfere with cheese production. Crispr is a name given to the DNA sequence where a protein enzyme called Cas9 naturally ‘snips’ the genome, allowing for the removal of genomic DNA.
Right now they are focusing on creating as much protein as possible from the yeast strains they are incubating at a comfortable 30 degrees Celsius. The current yield is one gram of protein per liter of yeast and they hope to increase this by optimizing the liquid in which the yeast grows and purifying the harvested proteins.
Rouskey says that he’s very well aware of the concerns many people have about the field of synthetic biology, in which researchers harness the biological mechanisms of living organisms. And, while he fully supports safety testing and controls related to these genetically modified organisms, he also believes that, when used wisely, technologies of this nature have the potential to benefit humanity and the environment.
“We already use genetically modified bacteria to produce insulin for diabetics,” he said. “We’re just now using the same technique for cheese.”
The cheese itself will not be genetically modified, only the yeast that produces the raw protein materials.
He invited people who were curious to go to the Real Vegan Cheese website, where the team discusses the process, ramifications and potential issues with GMO technology in great detail.
Since the project began in 2014, everyone working on vegan cheese is currently a volunteer.
Yet, they feel confident that this will develop into a profitable venture in the near future. Preliminary market research has shown that there is consumer interest in such a product from a much larger group of people than just vegans. The cheese will also be lactose-free, more easily digestible for many people.
Right now the ‘vegan cheese’ is more expensive to produce than regular cheese, but the crew expects costs to come down as they refine their laboratory procedures.
Rouskey recently spent time abroad in the developing world and feels strongly that vegan cheese should not be priced or marketed only as a high-end gourmet product.
In keeping with Rouskey and the team’s desire to make the cheese accessible to as many people as possible, they are looking into producing kits that people can order to make their own vegan cheese at home.
Community and networking have been crucial to the cheese project throughout their entire journey.
Rouskey credits Counter Culture Labs, and former roommate Marc Juul who introduced him to the space, for getting him on board with making vegan cheese.
“If I didn’t live in Oakland, I wouldn’t even know about this project,” he said.
Located inside of the Omni Commons community center, on Shattuck Blvd. near the MacArthur BART station, Counter Culture Labs (CCL) is a public biology laboratory. Anyone from the community can use the space for projects, provided they undergo free safety training for certain types of work.
“We get professionals from other fields, tech folks from across the bay, people who aren’t always biologists but are very interested,” said Kathy Buehmann, a member of CCL.
I recently visited Counter Culture Labs as a guest during one of their regular Tuesday evening socials. While there, I touched a large, brown, fleshy dried mushroom and examined the specimen under the microscope. Later on, I enjoyed another species of Basidiomycota (the genus of mushrooms that produces the traditional mushroom-shaped structure for dispersing spores) on pizza.
Other projects currently under way at CCL include independently synthesizing insulin in a less expensive way, which could bring cheaper medicine to millions of people living with diabetes, and a large effort to analyze the properties of mushrooms.
Rouskey currently working on an effort to augment baby formula with some of the proteins that breast milk contains that are good for infant health. While that product passes through the extensive regulatory and safety checks involved with any sort of food for children, he has energy and time that he can devote to vegan cheese.
And, given that the vegan cheese recently won recognition at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition, a major annual event in the field of synthetic biology, it seems to have a bright future.
Counter Culture Labs’ website: http://www.counterculturelabs.org/
Vegan Cheese Project’s website: https://wiki.realvegancheese.org/index.php/Real_Vegan_Cheese