Israeli researchers working to produce affordable cow's milk from yeast

The challenge is not only creating a completely new (and satisfying) product but also making it accessible to the general public.

Cartons of milk (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cartons of milk
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Can milk produced from yeast truly look and taste like cow's milk? According to researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) looking to revolutionize the dairy industry – it can.
As the world is becoming more aware of the damages caused by the modern dairy industry to the environment, to animals on a large scale and to our own health, more money is being invested in biotechnological companies around the world searching for ways to create better and more satisfying milk substitutes.
Prof. Tamir Tuller from TAU's Biomedical Engineering Department decided to invest his time and professional background in achieving just that, and together with entrepreneur Dr. Eyal Iffergan, he established a startup called Imagindairy, which, like its name suggests, attempts the impossible: producing cow's milk without any cows, but yeast, instead. 
While milk substitutes are nothing new, creating one that manages to keep the important nutritional values, the distinct taste, aroma and texture we are all familiar with – hasn't been done yet. Moreover, not only will they taste the same, but according to the promising startup, Imagindairy's milk and other cheese products will actually be healthier than milk produced from animals, since it won't contain cholesterol, lactose or somatic cells, allowing people with lactose intolerance to enjoy dairy flavors as well.
Prof. Tamir Tuller & Dr. Eyal Iffergan (Credit: Tel Aviv University)Prof. Tamir Tuller & Dr. Eyal Iffergan (Credit: Tel Aviv University)
Prof. Tuller explained that the challenge is not only creating a completely new (and satisfying) product but also making it accessible to the public by promising pragmatic prices.
"This is a long process of improvement - of productivity, taste, and, of course, of the price. This product is not a milk substitute like almond or soy milk. We plan to produce dairy products that will be identical to products that come from animals by introducing the yeast genome to the genes that code for milk development in cows,” he explained.
The work being done by Prof. Tuller and his team is based on a decade-long research done at Prof. Tuller's laboratory at TAU that focused on the modeling and engineering of gene expression using biophysical simulations, computational modeling of molecular evolution, and machine learning. These models in turn can be used to produce heterologous proteins - proteins coded by genes that come from another organism - more efficient and cheaper. Prof. Tuller's technology has also been used in the past to produce vaccines, medicine and even green energy by "using various organisms such as yeast, bacteria, micro-algae, and even viruses," a TAU press release noted.
This is made possible because "the genome of every living creature contains genes that encode the recipe for making chains of amino acids that make up proteins," Prof. Tuller explains.  
Thus, taking a gene from one living organism and inserting it into the genome of another organism can serve as a biological "factory" for producing proteins encoded in that gene.
Still, the process is tricky and requires more steps before becoming operational on a large scale. One of the remaining challenges according to Prof. Tuller is "translating" the language of cow's protein into the language of yeast.
"Theoretically, 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 in order 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," Prof. Tuller said.
"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,'" he added.
"With the help of models that we developed in the laboratory, we believe that within a fairly short time, we will succeed in making yeast produce milk proteins [efficiently] that will enable affordable, high-quality industrial-scale, production," he concluded.