Counter Culture Labs takes its name pretty literally. It is a bio lab, for sure, complete with pipettes, carboys, microscopes, and flasks. But it is decidedly counter to the traditional culture of laboratory science. The DIY tinkerers who hang out here—in the back of a sprawling space that used to house a heavy-metal club in Oakland, California—are working beyond conventional notions of inquiry and research. Their goal is nothing less than to hack nature.
Consider one group of biohackers who meet in the lab each Monday night to work on a project that sounds like a contradiction in terms: They’re trying to make cow’s milk cheese without the cow. Using mail-order DNA, they’re tricking yeast cells into producing a substance that’s molecularly identical to milk. And if successful, they’ll turn this milk into cheese. Real cheese. But vegan cheese. Real vegan cheese.
That’s the name of the project: Real Vegan Cheese. These hackers want cheese that tastes like the real thing, but they don’t want it coming from an animal. Abandoning real cheese is one of the hardest sacrifices vegans must make, says one member of the group, Benjamin Rupert, a chemist by training and a vegan for the past decade. With Real Vegan Cheese, they won’t have to. “What we’re making is identical to the animal protein,” he says. “You’re not giving anything up, really.”
This may sound strange, silly, and more than a little far-fetched. But it’s real. We’ve reached the point where hacking DNA is neither technically difficult nor terribly expensive. Sequencing a human genome used to cost billions of dollars. Now, it costs a few thousand. The same Moore’s law–type effect has dramatically cut the cost of “writing” genes. Ordering snippets of custom DNA with letter-by-letter precision is as simple as filling out an online form, and the cost is less than 25 cents per base pair—a price that puts the genes for making quasi-cow’s milk within reach of hobbyists.
However odd this project may seem, it shows what soon will be possible with homegrown food science. 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.
Counter Culture Labs, in keeping with its DIY spirit, is itself a work-in-progress, a space for tinkering that’s constantly being tinkered with.
When I visited late last year, one half-built lab bench included a pig’s heart floating in a glass jar. It was pale white but for a metal pipe jutting from the top, the heart chemically stripped of all but its cartilage. If this were a movie, a ghost heart would be an ominous sign that here was a place where science had gone awry, where nature is being perverted. But the vibe at Counter Culture Labs is more science fair than mad scientist.
The heart belongs to Patrik D’haeseleer, a Harvard University–trained computational biologist who leads a research group at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He said the ghost heart could be used as a scaffold on which living tissue could be grown to create transplantable organs from a patient’s own cells. Counter Culture Labs, he says, lets him explore such things in a hands-on way that isn’t possible with his day job.
His attitude exemplifies what’s called the DIY biotech movement, which has emerged in the past decade. The movement’s goal, as Counter Culture Labs’ website succinctly notes, is to “excite curiosity and empower exploration. … We offer a comfy, open space in which to learn, create, tinker and innovate. Open to citizen scientists, biohackers, and empiricists of all stripes!” The movement self-consciously compares itself to the homebrew digital pioneers of the 1970s, who wrested digital technology out of academia and business and into the wider realm of the amateurs. It’s open to anyone with an idea.
An idea like Real Vegan Cheese.
When I visit the lab, I discover the cheese team includes a biologist, a bioethicist, a retired clinical psychologist, an accountant, and a former Apple marketer. “This to me is a natural extension of computer culture,” says Maria Chavez, the ex-Apple employee and a leader of the vegan cheese project. “What is bigger to hack than our bodies and our environment? It’s one of the last big frontiers. The possibilities are exciting.”
The possibilities include not just vegan cow cheese but, well, vegan human cheese. The same basic process for synthesizing cow’s milk applies to milk from any other mammal. You just need different genes. Cheese made from engineered human breast milk may not sound like a top seller at the deli counter. But the team says it can serve a practical purpose: Human milk cheese could offer an option to people who have allergies to nonhuman dairy products. (Chavez said the group has put its experiments with human milk on hold due to Food and Drug Administration concerns about possible autoimmune reactions.)
They also hope to engineer cheese based on the milk of the narwhal, the most outlandish mammal they could imagine. They hear the milk has the consistency of toothpaste.
The DIY biotech movement sprang out of and alongside an MIT-sponsored competition called iGEM, or “international genetically engineered machine.” First held in 2004, iGEM is a kind of science fair where MIT students use a set of open-source genetic “parts” to create new kinds of microorganisms.
Initially, the competition was only for undergrads. But after graduation, many competitors were interested in continuing this kind of work beyond academia’s traditional constraints. As they did, the competition opened its doors wider. Real Vegan Cheese, or at least the concept, won the prize for best community lab project in 2014, the first year DIYers could compete alongside students.
Why cheese? It resonates in multiple ways with these indie scientists. As a process going back centuries, cheese making reflects the artisanal ethic they like to cultivate. At the same time, cheese is one of the earliest examples of humans manipulating microbes to transform one substance into another—a kind of proto-biotechnology.
What’s more, some DIYers happen to be vegan, and they miss cheese. Yes, there are vegan cheeses made from plants, but, to put it kindly, they fall short. “They’re mimicking protein structures that don’t exist in the plant kingdom,” Chavez says. “They don’t have the same taste or texture.”
But they aren’t just trying to feed themselves. The DIY view prizes open innovation, the idea that knowledge and skills should be available to anyone to play with. Real Vegan Cheese is making its cheese recipe open source. As with traditional cheese, DIYers want anyone to be able to make the biotech version at home.
As it stands, the Real Vegan Cheese team has identified 11 proteins that will form the foundation of its cheese. 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.
At least, that’s the theory. So far, the group has managed to splice 10 of the 11 DNA snippets into the yeast, and they are testing to confirm that their hacked microbes are producing milk proteins. Even when they do, other problems will remain. Though the proteins provide a foundation, the group still will need to find vegan substitutes for the naturally occurring animal fat and milk sugar (lactose) that are the other essential ingredients in cheese. This is where Real Vegan Cheese goes from biotech to food science. Will palm oil give Real Vegan Cheese the bulk to make it indistinguishable from the nonvegan variety? Cocoa butter?
These questions aren’t trivial. After all, “chemically identical” doesn’t mean much if the end product doesn’t taste good. Even then, if the project succeeds, will this be “real” milk? “Real” cheese? The answers may be hard to come by, because scientists are still trying to understand the milk and cheese we eat today.
Rafael Jimenez-Flores loves milk. A professor at Cal Poly’s Dairy Products Technology Center, he describes milk as a weird and marvelous substance uniquely evolved to nourish.
But milk, he explains, nourishes more than babies. Mothers expend a lot of metabolic energy to synthesize sugars in their milk that babies don’t digest. From an evolutionary standpoint, that sounds wasteful, but recent research suggests that these undigested sugars feed beneficial bacteria in a baby’s gut. Researchers are still working to understand the function of these bacteria.
Jimenez-Flores says this complexity can’t be artificially replicated because scientists themselves still don’t fully understand milk or how it works.
But he acknowledges that Real Vegan Cheese wouldn’t need to be made from an exact replica of cow’s milk to achieve the biohackers’ goals. “The essential amino acid makeup of the synthetic milk is going to be identical to real milk,” Jimenez-Flores says. “If it has the right caloric content, it’s going to be nutritionally indistinguishable from cow’s milk.”
But just because this is possible, some critics believe, that doesn’t mean we should do it. Many vegans, in particular, frown on genetically modified organisms, and biotech critics question the safety of fiddling with nature’s alphabet. The issue becomes especially troubling for some when that science is being done in an unmonitored DIY lab beyond the bounds of traditional, more tightly controlled institutions.
The creators of Real Vegan Cheese say the GMO debate doesn’t apply to their creation. The end product—the “cheese” itself—won’t contain any genetically modified material, they point out. Yes, the yeast, which produces the milk, has been hacked. But the actual product isn’t so different from food made using centuries-old techniques. Beer, yogurt, cheese itself: All depend upon processing organic matter through bacteria.
That assurance doesn’t comfort Dana Perls of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. She’s a vocal critic of synthetic biology—the catchall name given to biotech based on writing custom genes—and synthetic biology’s potential uses in food-making in particular. “We need regulations specific to these new technologies, and we need safety assessments,” she says.
When it comes to synthetic biology, Perls advocates the so-called precautionary principle, which would require scientists to prove that a given technique or product is safe before being allowed to forge ahead. Not surprisingly, she finds the spread of DIY labs particularly alarming. Traditional labs are hard enough to monitor, she argues. “Can we be reprogramming life in our garages and be sure nothing will go wrong?”
For Perls and other biotech critics, the biggest fear is that an organism built in a lab will escape into the wild and decimate vulnerable ecosystems. And unlike, say, an oil spill, a synthetic microbe in this worst-case scenario couldn’t be cleaned up because it would keep reproducing. The Real Vegan Cheese team says it’s sensitive to these concerns—though they say, like most synthetic biologists, that the biggest challenge isn’t locking down their creations; it’s ensuring they survive at all.
“The way we’re planning on growing them, we’ll have to work pretty hard to keep them alive,” Rupert says. “If they escape from our vats, they’re not going to make it very far.”
Real Vegan Cheese isn’t alone in trying to apply synthetic biology to food production. Indeed, for-profit ventures are hotly pursuing the possibilities. A San Francisco startup called Muufri (“moo-free”) recently announced it had received $2 million to develop its own cowless cow milk. And in Switzerland, a company called Evolva is using synthetic biology to make flavors traditionally derived from hard-to-find plants, such as vanilla and saffron.
Unlike typical artificial vanillin, which is made from wood pulp or petrochemicals, says Evolva CEO Neil Goldsmith, his company’s vanillin is chemically identical to the flavorful substance extracted from the vanilla bean but costs much less. “Really what we are doing is simply taking genes that already exist in the plant and putting them in something that already exists in the food chain,” Goldsmith says, referring to the yeast cells Evolva is hacking to make its vanillin. “And that’s really not a big deal.”
Is human manipulation of DNA “unnatural”? To answer such a question, you have to ask whether technology itself is “natural.” Humans have been consciously intervening in the natural environment—and screwing it up—since the first stone hammers were hoisted. And we started altering the evolution of other species the first time we planted seeds in the ground. Most of the food we eat comes from humans manipulating nature to make it work for us.
Still, plunging into the core of what makes life work forces us to re-examine assumptions about nature so ingrained that the English language hardly has the capacity to articulate them. Is cow’s milk without the cow really cow’s milk? If not, what do we call it? Is it a distinction without a difference? Or does our meddling in life’s alphabet make all the difference?
Here’s the thing: Little else in human culture comes freighted with as much baggage as food. The things we eat come loaded with taboos and value judgments, status signifiers and ethical anxieties. On the other hand, if Real Vegan Cheese melts all gooey and good on a ground beef patty grown in a petri dish and not in a pasture, we’ll eat it.
To predict the future of food, the best indicator of all is whatever we’re stuffing in our faces.
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