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Israeli researchers aim to produce milk using yeast

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Researchers at Tel Aviv University say there’s ‘increased awareness of the damage caused by the dairy industry to the environment and human health worldwide and this has inspired many to search for milk substitutes’

By ILANIT CHERNICK

Tel Aviv University is on its way to producing animal-free dairy milk using yeast.

The duo behind its development is Prof. Tamir Tuller from the Biomedical Engineering Department of the Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and food tech entrepreneur Dr. Eyal Iffergan. 

Together, the duo have established a startup company called Imagindairy, which is aiming to produce cow’s milk from yeast.

Explaining their plan, Tuller said that their “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.”

Discussing what inspired the idea, the duo said that over the last few years there has been an “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” and this has inspired many to search for milk substitutes. 

Tuller stressed that “Imagindairy’s milk and cheese products will actually be much healthier 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,” he said. “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, 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, the genes that code for milk development in cows.”

Prof. Tamir Tuller & Dr. Eyal Iffergan are aiming to produce dairy milk using yeast.
(Credit: Tel Aviv University)

For years, Tuller’s laboratory at TAU has focused on 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, which are proteins coded by genes that come from another organism, more efficient and thus cheaper.” he explained. 

According to TAU, Tuller’s 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. 

And now, Tuller and his colleagues are taking this work a step further by conquering their new objective: cow’s milk.

The team believes that through their research, “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: the dairy products will be produced from yeast rather than from cow.”

Explaining the essence behind his and his team’s technology and research, Tuller emphasized that “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,” Tuller said. “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.” 

Tuller stressed that for many years, biotechnology companies have been harnessing the gene expression process in order to produce desirable proteins affordably. 

“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,” he continued. “This technology has been used for many years to produce medications, vaccines, and energy, and it is also used in the food industry.”

According to the professor, it is theoretically possible to reach a situation in which people will not be able tell the difference between cow’s milk that comes from a cow and cow’s milk that comes from yeast. 

But he said that in order for that to happen in an economically viable 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,” he emphasized. “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 Tuller and his team have developed in the laboratory, they claim that within a fairly short time, “we will succeed in making yeast produce milk proteins in an efficient way that will enable affordable, high-quality industrial-scale production.”

Although there have been attempts to produce milk from microflora, Tuller pointed out that the price of producing milk in such a way is anything but affordable. 

“I believe that we are on the right path, and within a fairly short time, we will be able to prepare in our own homes, toast with yellow cheese that was made from yeast and not from cow’s milk, without having paid any more for it,” Tuller concluded.

Imaginedairy has been working with Tel Aviv University via Ramot, the university’s technology transfer company.

*Featured Image: An illustrative photo of milk being inspected in a laboratory. (Photo credit: Microgen/Shutterstock)

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