Yeast-derived “animal products” may soon be part of an environmentally balanced diet.
In 2008, the biotech industry had fallen on tough times: capital was drying up and businesses were struggling to survive. That’s when Ryan Bethencourt saw an opportunity. A biologist with an entrepreneurial streak, he and a couple of friends started buying equipment from bankrupt companies and setting up their own small labs. By 2013, he had co-founded Counter Culture Labs, a “biohacker” space in Oakland, California. There, DIY-biology enthusiasts are now working on, among other projects, making real cheese in a way that bypasses the cow.
Bethencourt is part of a growing group of scientists, entrepreneurs, and lab tinkerers who are forging a bold new food future—one without animals. But they’re not asking everyone to give up meat and dairy. Thanks to advances in synthetic biology, they’re developing ways to produce actual animal products—meat, milk, egg whites, collagen—in the lab. And in doing so, they are shrinking the carbon footprint and slashing the land and water requirements of these goods with the goal of meeting the world’s growing protein needs more sustainably.
Microbes become factories that churn out the same substances that we now rely upon animals to produce.
Lab-grown meat has grabbed a lot of headlines in recent years. Dutch scientist Mark Post infamously produced the first lab-grown hamburger in 2013 to the tune of $325,000. But Post’s costs have since dropped precipitously, and one cultured-meat startup, Memphis Meats, has said it expects to have a product in stores by 2021.
However, this new food landscape extends well beyond meat. In the Oakland biohacker space, biologists, coders, and other volunteers with the Real Vegan Cheese project are figuring out how to produce the real thing, and they’re keeping their findings open-source. In the startup arena, Perfect Day is racing to get their cow-free milk to market, Clara Foods is creating egg whites without eggs, and Geltor is making collagen in the lab. Bethencourt has supported these and other innovative food startups through IndieBio, an investment group and business accelerator he cofounded in 2014.
What all these projects have in common is that they’re harnessing the fermentation process to make animal protein. “We’ve been using that technology for thousands of years,” said Bethencourt in a recent talk. “Now we’re starting to get sophisticated with it.”
Producing animal protein in a lab looks like making beer, but with the help of a little synthetic biology. Scientists genetically modify yeast with a chunk of DNA that tells the microbe what protein to make. They then “brew” the yeast with nutrients in a bioreactor and isolate the resulting proteins. In other words, microbes become factories that churn out the same substances that we now rely upon sentient beings to produce.
In the case of Perfect Day, after isolating the yeast-derived cow’s milk protein, they add in nutrients—as well as plant-based sugars and fats—to achieve texture and flavor similar to those of milk from an udder. Unlike other milk substitutes, their milk doesn’t need starches, gums, and stabilizers, says company CEO Ryan Pandya, and it can be made into other higher-value products such as cheese and yogurt.
A preliminary life-cycle analysis of yeast-derived milk found that its production requires approximately two-thirds the amount of land and water that conventional milk production does.
Raising cows and other livestock to feed ourselves has led to a familiar host of environmental woes—CO2 and methane emissions, air and water pollution, considerable land requirements—not to mention animal-welfare transgressions and antibiotic resistance. At the same time, the demand for meat, dairy, and eggs continues to rise, particularly in developing countries.
A preliminary life-cycle analysis of yeast-derived milk found that its production requires approximately two-thirds the amount of land and water that conventional milk production does. And, assuming wind energy powers the bioreactors, yeast-derived milk beats conventional milk by about half in terms of fossil fuel depletion and global warming potential.
Of course, to reap these environmental benefits in any meaningful way will require a massive scaling effort. Bethencourt believes this will be possible within a decade. But the problem isn’t trivial. He sums up the crux of it in a deceptively simple question: “How efficiently can you turn a pound of sugar into a pound of the product you want?” The inputs to fermentation are essentially sugar water and yeast protein, but there’s still a lot of experimentation to be done to output proteins on a large scale. Some are just more difficult to make than others, says Kate Krueger, research director at New Harvest, a nonprofit that supports the science of cellular agriculture. “It’s really hard to tell what’s going to be hard to make until you try,” says Krueger. Companies are doing R&D as they go, and running a bioreactor is not cheap.
However, they’re moving toward cost-competitiveness. Perfect Day is tailoring its process so that it can work within standard industrial fermentation
facilities, according to Pandya. And Geltor is starting off by selling their collagen products in the cosmetics industry, where a consistent, customizable product can command a premium, says company CEO Alexander Lorestani. They may explore pharmaceutical and food industry applications as their efficiency improves.
But efficiency is only one hurdle in the marketplace. The other is squeamishness. Cellular agriculture will be realized only if consumers accept the technology and its products. To those who wrinkle their noses at the idea of a yeast-based system to produce milk, Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, likes to remind us of the current system: “Today, milk is made by artificially inseminating a cow at 13 months of age, having it bear a calf nine months later, having the calf removed (to be made into veal), and then maintaining the cow in a lactating state for about two years. By age four, the dairy cow is culled for beef.”
Can we do better? Fermentation biotechnology has brought us cheese and yogurt. Now it could play a big part in feeding a growing world population while keeping agriculture’s environmental footprint in check. And that’s a mouth-watering prospect.