Cow Milk Without The Cow

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milkCOUNTER 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 bio-hackers 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.

Benjamin Rupert, a chemist by training and a vegan for the past decade, says Real Vegan Cheese will make going vegan easier.Click to Open Overlay Gallery

Benjamin Rupert, a chemist by training and a vegan for the past decade, says Real Vegan Cheese will make going vegan easier.  CODY PICKENS

Natural Curiosity

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.

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