Cow-Less Milk Grown in the Lab
A pair of bioengineers in California are trying to create milk – but without the cow (goat, sheep, buffalo…).
Perumal Gandhi and Ryan Pandya are two vegans from San Francisco who have founded a synthetic-dairy start-up business called Muufri (pronounced “Moo-free”). But the pair has not always been vegan. They miss the taste of dairy in the form of cheese and butter and ice cream, so recreating every aspect of cow-milk is an important aim for them, but especially the taste.
The pair became vegans because they became concerned about animal welfare. They view the livestock industry as an inhumane practice, with cows crammed into crowded barns, with docked tails and horns, pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics.
“If we want the world to change its diet from a product that isn’t sustainable to something that is, it had to be identical, or better than, the original product,” Gandhi explained. He added that people haven’t made the switch from cow’s milk to the plant-based varieties like almond and soy milk, but then they don’t taste the same or have the same consistency. “But if our cow-less milk is identical and priced right, they just might.”
Muufri milk will be made using genetically-engineered yeast that churns out real milk proteins. This means that the lab-grown milk’s formula will mirror that of the real thing and so retain the taste and nutritional benefits of it. It will also be what differentiates it from plant-based alternatives.
Pandya explained that making milk in the lab might not be as difficult as you would expect. “If you look at all the components, less than 20 make milk milk,” he said. “[They] give it the taste, structure, colour you expect when you drink milk.”
And Muufri’s milk will contain only those essential proteins, minerals, fats and sugars. There are, of course, other differences in the milk, aside from the proteins coming from yeast. For example, the fats come from vegetables and are tweaked at a molecular level to mimic the flavour and structure of fats typically found in milk. Minerals and sugars also have to be bought separately and added to the mix (because they don’t occur naturally). But then, everything blends together to make the milk.
The ultimate plan is for cattle DNA sequences to be inserted into the yeast cells, which will then be cultured for a few days before the milk proteins can be harvested. The team said they already know that the process is extremely safe because it is the same one used to manufacture insulin and other medicine.
Because Gandhi and Pandya are able to control the ingredients of their milk, they are also looking into ways of making healthier alternatives, such as using different sugars to lactose. This would prove a great benefit to the approximately 75% of the world who are lactose-intolerant, meaning they cannot digest lactose.
Cheese, yoghurt, cream – any dairy product – could all be created using Muufri’s milk. After they have mastered cow’s milk, dairy products imitating those from goats or buffalo will be next on the agenda.
Until then, Muufri says that it hopes to have perfected its cow-free milk by spring 2015, meaning that it could be in shops by 2017.
“Milk production using a cow worked until a few decades back, when the human population was small. But that is no longer the case,” Gandhi pointed out. “We need to innovate to allow everyone to be able to enjoy a glass of milk or their favourite dairy product 50 years from today.”