Scientists Are Working On Synthetic Milk Now, Too

Hey, who’s up for some lab-grown dairy products?

Over a year ago, Dutch scientists successfully created a synthetic hamburger in a lab — an endeavor that took three months and cost $330,000. Now a pair of scientists in San Francisco, Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, are working on doing the same with milk at their start-up called Muufri. Earlier this year, they started lab trials, and they hope to have a finished product by 2017.

As far as how Pandya and Gandhi are planning to pull it off, their method is to insert cattle DNA sequences into yeast cells, grow the resultant cultures under controlled temperature conditions and harvest the proteins from there. They’re then going to extract the fat necessary from vegetables and add generally-available minerals (like potassium and calcium) and sugars to the mix. Perhaps most interestingly, their plan is not to use lactose, but another sugar which would make their concoction viable for people with lactose intolerance (which sugar seems to be unclear).

Given everything else we know about synthetic foods, ultimately, there will only be two things regular consumers will actually care about:

1) How does it taste?

2) How much does it cost?

That’s it. That’s the list.

I’m a huge fan of synthetic foods in principle; if they could be harnessed to a cost-effective production model, they could solve an inordinate number of problems worldwide — environmental issues, food shortage issues, big agricultural company executives having way too much money issues.* If it worked, it would be great, and we’d be one step closer to our eventual destiny of Star Trek replicators.

But that’s the current problem: the technology currently isn’t feasible when you move from principle to practicality. Opinions vary on the taste of synthetic meat (the people who taste-tested the Dutch scientists’ burger basically reported that it wasn’t quite there, but it was close), but we know it’s currently not nearly cost-effective enough for mass production. What worries me is the potential for an electric car scenario wherein major companies find ways to crush the technology in its infancy out of pure, unmitigated self-interest.

In the meantime, we can hope, though. At least for the moment.

* I’m kidding about this one, of course. Obviously Big Synth Agra would pop up almost instantaneously and we’d have new comically rich, eminently hateable human beings to deal with. If there is one known inexhaustible natural resource, it’s hateable corporate dickhats.

Image via Valentyn Volkov/Shutterstock.

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