Dairy without the Cow
Animals are very good at eating plants and turning them into high-quality protein — that’s why animal protein has been part of the human diet for well over a million years. But it turns out that microflora (or flora) — organisms like yeast and bacteria that are too small to be seen without a microscope — can produce much more protein than mammals, using fewer resources.
Flora are the key to Perfect Day’s new animal-free approach to dairy. Read on to see how!
Traces of milkfat molecules in ancient ceramic pottery suggest that Neolithic cultures in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) are domesticating cattle for dairy production at least this early in history. (ThoughtCo.)
Cow’s milk is now regularly being converted into cheese in Central Europe. It’s believed that early dairy farmers used cheesemaking to preserve the milk from their herd. (Nature)
Building on Louis Pasteur’s earlier work, German chemist Franz von Soxhlet proposes pasteurization as a solution to improve milk's shelf life and food safety – a critical development in the histories of both dairy and humanity's relationship with microflora. (cdc.gov)
As an alternative to extracting stomach enzymes from slaughtered veal calves, the key enzyme – rennet – is approved by the United States FDA to be produced using microflora instead of animals. This is the first commercial enzyme to be produced through fermentation and marks the beginning of a new era in precision fermentation. Today, more than 95% of cheese made in America uses flora-made rennet. (The Washington Post)
Perfect Day invents a way to produce dairy-identical proteins without cows, using flora, ushering in a new era for dairy and for the emerging field of precision fermentation. (Click here for our full timeline.)
The Power of Fermentation
For centuries, humans have relied on flora to produce leavened bread, to convert the sugar in grapes to wine, and of course, to turn milk into products like cheese and yogurt. Harnessing flora to produce and preserve better food and drink is called fermentation, and it's been part of the human story for longer than the concepts of writing or money.
As we learned more about microbiology during the 20th century, we came to appreciate just how flexible flora can be. They can be fed nearly anything, and they can be trained to produce nearly anything.
That’s why today, the humble process of fermentation has become humanity’s go-to method for producing certain kinds of medicines, food ingredients, and even beauty products. But until 2014, no one had ever produced animal-identical foods using flora.
We realized that if flora could make almost anything, they could even make animal proteins — like the whey and casein proteins found in milk — and they could make them more efficiently than animals themselves do.
A Simple Process
To produce our animal-free protein, all we have to do is feed plant sugars and simple nutrients to our friendly flora, which have been taught the genetic code for producing whey and casein. The flora can then produce a huge amount of protein inside fermentation tanks, kind of like the ones used to make beer or wine.
After a few days of munching sugar and converting it into protein, the protein in the tanks is ready to be harvested. Using simple filtration, the protein is separated from the flora and any remaining sugar, and then dried into a powder.
From here, because it's the same kind of protein that food makers are already familiar with, it's simple to use animal-free dairy protein in the same ways you'd use dairy protein from cow's milk. When we combine our animal-free dairy protein with water, plant-based fats, vitamins, and minerals in the same proportions you find in cow's milk, what we get is…milk! Only it’s animal-free.
This animal-free milk, imbued with the power of real dairy proteins, can be turned into your favorite dairy products!
But how did we teach flora to make milk proteins? Microflora don’t naturally produce animal proteins — obviously, there’s more to the story.
The Language of Genes
One of the coolest things about biology is that the cells that make up every creature on Earth all speak the same language: DNA. Inside every cell exists a vast library of instructions for making different types of proteins, and the cells of one organism can read the instructions contained in the cells of another organism.
Every protein is encoded by a specific gene (a sequence of DNA). In theory, it's simple to teach flora to make any protein you want: just give the flora a copy of the gene representing the protein you want to make, and the flora’s internal biology will recognize the DNA and automatically start producing the protein.
But you can't exactly find cow-protein genes at the corner store. How did we get them?
While DNA is a physical molecule, genes can be digitized; they're just information, after all. And it turns out that a huge number of natural genes have already been catalogued in scientific databases.
So, it was easy for us to download the genes from a digital database and use the now-common tools of biology to turn these digital genetic sequences back into physical DNA molecules that a cell can read. This process is all totally animal-free.
We now had the milk-protein genes in a form that could be read by any cell. So, what kind of cell should we work with?
Just as cows are the best milk producers in the animal world, it turns out there was a winner from the world of flora, too.
Sixty years ago, on the Solomon Islands, a natural microflora was discovered to be eating holes in soldiers’ canvas tents. It turned out that these microscopic creatures were producing a huge amount of cellulase enzyme, capable of breaking down the tough cellulose fibers making up the canvas material. Between its ability to make a ton of protein – and its talent for learning how to make other proteins using the tools of precision fermentation - this friendly flora, known as Trichoderma, quickly became a darling of the bioproducts industry. It seemed like a no-brainer for us to work with this time-tested winner.
By combining the animal-free milk-protein genes with some spores of Trichoderma, we successfully domesticated the world’s first dairy-producing flora.
Training the flora to make milk protein required our brilliant scientists and a ton of hard work, but now, anyone who knows how to run a fermentation tank can make animal-free milk protein!
A Kinder, Greener Planet
We're excited to have progressed from just a crazy idea to making real animal-free dairy you can buy today through our brand partners. Keep an eye out for products made better with Perfect Day.
And as it turns out, Perfect Day is only one of a huge number of companies that are using flora to produce products in kinder, greener ways. This means that in the coming years, many people all over the world will be building fermentation tanks and learning how to operate them to make all kinds of things, old and new. It's all part of creating a kinder, greener world — that everyone can enjoy.