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Did you know scientists have worked out how to make milk in a lab using yeast?
Using biotechnology tools, scientists can encourage yeast to produce the milk proteins casein and whey. How do they do this? A cow’s DNA encodes the genes that produce these two proteins. Scientists can then take this genetic code and insert it into the yeast, sometimes with changes to make it work well inside yeast cells (they are a little different from cow cells!). The cellular machinery inside the yeast then uses this as a blueprint and starts producing the milk proteins, just like it produces its own proteins. This yeast is put into vats, kept under ideal conditions, and regularly fed nutrients and sugar so that they grow and make protein in what is sort of a protein brewery. These proteins are then separated from the yeast and used to make vegan dairy products by combining the proteins with water, plant-based fats, and other components you would expect to find in milk.
Using this method, it would be possible to produce different formulations of milk to suit different needs by tweaking the blend of proteins put into the final product. This could mean high protein milk, or milk that caters to dietary restrictions such as casein or lactose intolerances. Interestingly this milk is also vegan, as there are no animals involved in the production of this milk, so it would be suitable for those who wish to avoid consuming animal products. Companies in the United States are already successfully producing vegan ice-cream and other products using this technology!
This new option would provide a viable alternative to plant-based milk alternatives. Plant-based alternatives do not always perform in the same way as animal-derived dairy does in a hot frothy coffee or in some recipes however, this option would. There other advantages too! Both traditional dairy and milk alternatives require many natural resources to produce, including land and water, and dairy cows produce methane, a greenhouse gas. Lab-produced milk does not require as many resources, making it an eco-friendly choice, as well as a vegan one. Importantly it would also allow dairy products to be created within remote communities throughout the year and reduce the cost of these products, which are typically expensive due to the cost of shipping cold fresh milk over long distances.
Creating milk, egg whites, and even meat without the need for animals is an amazing development in the way food is produced. This ‘cellular agriculture’ is a viable alternative to traditional livestock agriculture and if continues to grow in popularity and economic viability, could become an effective tool in creating more food for the Earth’s growing population, without requiring more resources.
Would you like to learn more about the future of food? Tune into our podcast The Code of Life to hear from two local researchers working in the field.