How do you make ice cream without animals? Train fungi to ‘act like cows’

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Ice cream and other dairy products can be produced from lab-made proteins, without animals. Credit: Perfect Day

The food company Perfect Day has found a way to replicate whey—a milk protein that’s partially responsible for dairy’s creamy texture—without cows. And companies such as Brave Robot ($58 for four pints) and Smitten ($59 for four pints) are already using the ingredient in their vegan ice creams.

“Animal-free whey” isn’t as impossible as it sounds. In nature, cows eat grass, which gets digested into nutrients (protein, sugars, fats, etc.) that are turned into milk in the animals’ mammary glands. Sugar and fat are easy to get from other sources, like coconuts, but it’s the whey that makes dairy special, according to Nicki Briggs, RDN, the vice president of corporate communications at Perfect Day.

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Related article:  University student reflection: Let's take a balanced ethical and scientific look at genetic engineering

To recreate the protein, Perfect Day developed a specialized microflora (theirs is a type of fungi, though a bacteria could also work) and “trained it to act like a cow,” says Briggs. Here’s how: Their scientists took the genetic sequence of a cow (without harming it!), and used that as a “blueprint” to change sections of the DNA of the fungi so it would produce whey when fed certain sugars.

It’s basically a fancy form of fermentation …. Once Perfect Day had that microflora, the next step was to put it in a fermentation tank with sugars and let it do its thing.

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