The 1.5 billion cows around the world have long been known to cause severe environmental harm on Earth. Methane is produced by bacteria in their gut as food ferments in their multi-chambered stomachs. Every time a cow burps or passes gas, a little puff of methane rises into the atmosphere. Livestock produce 14.5 percent of all the greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, in addition to methane – released in the environment, and over half that comes specifically from cows, according to a United Nations report. In addition, their manure also harms the environment.
Although methane remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period than CO2, it has been estimated that methane gas from cows is 23x more damaging to our climate than the carbon dioxide produced by motorized vehicles. The result is a rise temperature around the globe by trapping heat. On a 100-year timescale, methane is nearly 28 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the Earth and more than 80 times more powerful over 20 years.
Since the Industrial Revolution, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have more than doubled, and about 20 percent of the warming the planet has experienced can be attributed to the gas. Methane also contribute to respiratory disease from smog and air pollution, extreme weather, disruption in the food supply and a higher risk of wildfires.
But now, researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) offer the possibility of relief. They are working on producing milk from yeast that looks and tastes like cow’s milk. Prof. Tamir Tuller from the biomedical engineering department of TAU’s Fleischman Faculty of Engineering, together with food-tech entrepreneur Dr. Eyal Iffergan, established the startup company cleverly named Imagindairy that is working on the impossible – to make cow’s milk from yeast.
The goal is to “produce animal-free dairy milk with all the important nutritional values of cow’s milk and with the same taste, aroma and texture that we are all familiar with, but without the suffering that is caused to cows and without damage to the environment,” they said.
The researchers believe that in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to buy dairy products in the supermarket that are identical in taste and color to the ordinary dairy products that we consume today, but with one small difference – they will come from yeast rather than from cows. Since no cow or non-kosher animal is involved, these are products that leading rabbis could rule to be on-dairy and thus able to be eaten with meat.
In recent years, increased awareness of the damage caused by the dairy industry to the environment and human health, and the ethical dilemmas of animal husbandry, biotechnology companies worldwide have been searching for milk substitutes. Tuller explained that the company’s goal is to produce milk with all the important nutritional values of animal milk, and with the same taste, aroma and texture that we are all familiar with, but without the suffering that cows endure and damage to the environment. Imagindairy’s milk and cheese products will actually be much more healthful than milk that comes from animals, since it will not contain cholesterol, lactose or somatic cells.
“Our startup also includes food engineers and food experts from the Strauss Company in Israel,” Tuller continued. “Currently, they are trying to take milk proteins from yeast and produce cheese from them. This is a long process of improvement – of productivity, taste and the price. This product is not a milk substitute like almond or soymilk. We plan to produce dairy products that will be identical to products that come from animals by introducing the yeast genome the genes that code for milk development in cows.”
Imaginedairy has been working with Tel Aviv University via Ramot, the university’s technology-transfer company. “Prof. Tuller’s groundbreaking technology could revolutionize the dairy industry as we know it,” said Keren Primor Cohen, Ramot’s Chief Executive Officer.
For about a decade, Tuller’s TAU lab has specialized in the modeling and engineering of gene expression using biophysical simulations, computational modeling of molecular evolution and machine learning. Among other things, these models are used to make the production of heterologous proteins (proteins coded by genes that come from another organism) more efficient and thus cheaper. The technology has been successfully used in the past to produce vaccines, antibodies, biosensors and green energy using various organisms such as yeast, bacteria, micro-algae and even viruses. Now, the team is devoting its energy to cow’s milk.
“The genome of every living creature contains genes that encode the recipe for making chains of amino acids that make up proteins, but it also contains information that encodes the complicated process that is known as ‘gene expression’ – the timing and pace of the creation of the proteins,” said Tuller. “Gene expression is the process of turning information stored in ‘inanimate’ DNA into proteins that are the ‘essence of life’ and are a major ingredient in every living thing that we know, from human beings to the coronavirus to cow’s milk. For many years, biotechnology companies have been harnessing the gene expression process for producing desirable proteins at a reasonable price. They do this by taking a gene from one living organism and implanting it in the genome of another organism that will serve as a ‘factory’ for producing the protein that is encoded in that gene. This technology has been used for many years to produce medications, vaccines and energy, and it is also used in the food industry.”
“Theoretically,” the biomedical engineer continued, “we can reach a situation in which we can’t tell the difference between cow’s milk that comes from a cow and cow’s milk that comes from yeast. But for that to happen in an economical way, we must turn the yeast cells into efficient factories that produce milk proteins – not a simple challenge to solve. Even though we know what the genes that encode the proteins for cow’s milk are, those genes are written in the ‘language’ of cow cells and need to be rewritten in the ‘language’ of yeast. This will make the production of the milk proteins possible in an appropriate, affordable, and efficient way in the yeast cell ‘factory.’ ”
With the help of models that they developed in the lab, the team believe that within a fairly short time, they will succeed in making yeast produce milk proteins in an efficient way that will enable affordable, high-quality industrial-scale production.
There have already been attempts to produce milk from microflora – bacteria that exist on or inside the body and involve a wide variety of microorganisms and interactions among microbes – but the price of producing milk in this way was very expensive. “I believe that we are on the right path, and within a fairly short time, we will be able to prepare at home toast with yellow cheese that was made from yeast and not from cow’s milk, without having paid any more for it,” Tuller concluded.