Experiment aims to take cow out of milk

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20140722-AMX-MILK221 The Washington Post Samples of a plant-based milk substitute being developed by Muufri, a San Francisco-based startup, are seen in this undated photo.

Washington - Biohackers Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi are crafting a plant-based concoction that's nearly identical in taste and nutritional makeup to cow's milk.

They've gone so far as to modify sunflower oil so that it can take on a structural composition similar to milk fats; substitute lactose with galactose, a nearly indistinguishable sugar; and culture yeast to release casein, a protein found in animal milk. If successful, their process might someday be used to churn out milk and a wide range of dairy products, such as cheese, butter and yogurt.

The duo, both with bioengineering backgrounds, are the co-founders of Muufri, a San Francisco-based start-up that hopes to fashion lab-brewed milk as a humane alternative to milk from animals. Funded by the Synthetic Biology Accelerator program of Singularity University (a corporation that promotes technology), they've spent the past few months in a lab in Ireland, where they're closing in on a prototype batch that's 100 percent animal-free.

“If you have all the right ingredients, making milk by hand can actually be surprisingly easy,” Pandya says. “Part of the reason why we've come this far and to put in the effort to see if it would work is because we're passionate animal lovers at heart.”

Ambitions to manufacture milk sans cow have been around for a least a century. In 1912, German scientists, using a mix of vegetables, created a synthetic mixture they claimed had a more nourishing creaminess than what you can get from a cow. Another notable effort in 1921 from an inventor in Boston led to a version made from ground peanuts, oatmeal and a pinch of salt. None of these efforts, however, yielded anything comparable in taste and composition.

Dairy farming in America accounts for as much as $140-billion worth of products annually. And farmers use practices that are particularly resource-intensive. In fact, it takes about 1 000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk, according to the nonprofit Water Footprint Network.

Thus, taking the process of milk production down to a matter of chemistry and yeast cultures, Pandya says, might go a long way toward easing the industry's strain on the environment. Besides, he adds, moving the process in-house, where each phase of production can be tightly controlled, would also ensure better sanitation, not to mention a longer shelf life.

“We're basically using biotechnology to make milk without pasteurisation and without the risk of contaminants like pesticides, hormones or bacteria that can spoil the milk quickly,” Pandya says. “It's quite similar to the process to make medicine and insulin, so it will be super sterile.”

But perhaps the biggest advantage of milk that's man-made is that it's highly customisable. Each element can be processed, separated and tweaked to whip up healthful formulations such as lactose-free or cholesterol-free milk, without significant compromises. Currently, the refining process for turning out such variations involves either using lactase, an enzyme, to break down lactose, or high-speed centrifuging to remove fatty acids. In both instances, the taste is altered and, in the case of nonfat skim milk, minute amounts of cholesterol remain in oxidised form.

Team Muufri admits, however, that they may have a ways to go before having something that poses a legitimate challenge to traditional milk. Their latest test batch, while composed mostly of plant-derived fats and sugars, isn't entirely cow-free. The taste, though, Pandya describes as “97 percent” that of milk. To get to 100 percent, they've taken to feeding the DNA sequence for cow's milk into the yeast's genetic code to make casein, a technique they're hoping to get perfect by next month. Still, the crucial part would be scaling up the system to produce enough for large segments of the population.

“The most important thing is to get the flavour as close to exact as possible,” Gandhi says.

Gandhi and Pandya are pushing feverishly to begin sales in California before 2017. Just ahead, though, is a return trip from Ireland to San Francisco on August. 19, where they aim to unveil the world's first glass of genuine milk made entirely from scratch (or the closest thing to it). - Washington Post

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