In my first post I discussed how genetic engineering works and why it’s not bad. Here I’d like to expand the discussion how GMO could actually help in the process of abolishing the use of animal products. If I use terminology that doesn’t sound familiar, I explain some in the previous GMO post. Let’s go through a few examples I’ve found that have or had helped reducing animal suffering. Either it could be the aim of the development of the product, or it could be a ‘side effect’ from a more commercial goal.
Real vegan cheese
The first thing that comes to mind is of course the exciting real vegan cheese project. This is a indiegogo project were biohackers have crowdfunded the development of a cheese without any animals involved using genetic engineering. The basic idea is you find the sequence of the proteins that are in milk, such as casein (which is the major protein family in milk). The DNA is synthesized and inserted in to baker’s yeast. The yeast is then able to produce the milk proteins, which can be extracted from the yeast. When one has the milk proteins, it has to be combined with fat, sugar and water to make a sort of milk, which then can be further processed into cheese (“Real vegan cheese,” n.d., “Real Vegan Cheese!,” n.d.)
We don’t know how it will taste, or if it will work. But it has real potential to result in a cheese that is very reminiscent of cheese made from cow’s milk. Even if you are a vegan that does not like the taste of cheese, this could probably replace a lot of cheese used by non-vegans as well because fermentation of yeast should be much cheaper than cow farming. Here the aim from the beginning has obviously been partly (or only) a vegan perspective.
Collagen is a protein that is very ubiquitous protein in our bodies that has an important role in connecting tissue together. It’s abundant in the skin, cartilage and many other types of tissue. When collagen is hydrolyzed (broken down in water) it becomes the jelly-like substance we call gelatin. Gelatin is used in candy, medical capsules, cosmetics and food. It’s produced by extracting and hydrolyzing collagen from animal skins and bones in an industrial scale. In many instances gelatin can be easily replaced by agar – a polysaccharide from algae. However, a group has started developing expressing recombinant human collagen, also in yeast (Duan, Umar, Xiong, & Chen, 2011). The idea here is that it would reduce the risk of diseases being spread and that the gelatin from other animals would induce an allergic reaction when ingested (AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY, 2011). Here the aim does not seem to be to reduce the use of animals, but I see it as a potential effect. Some people might be put off by the fact that it’s a human protein, but keep in mind that the actual gelatin or collagen, or even the atoms making up the DNA in the yeast has never ever been inside a human being. The human gene has only been used as a template once to synthesize the DNA.
I wrote about this in the previous GMO post, but I think it’s a very important example. Insulin, which is used by diabetics that cannot produce insulin themselves, was produced by extracting it from the pancreas of animals. However, as with the previous example, the gene encoding human insulin was inserted into bacteria, by which the bacteria could produce human insulin without any animals involved (Crea, Kraszewski, Hirose, & Itakura, 1978). It’s good for the animals, but also for the diabetics because of the possible risk of allergy to the non-human protein.
Cow milk – Muufri
Very closely related to real vegan cheese, a project to – just like the real vegan cheese – express milk proteins in yeast. It’s not crowdfunded and the aim seems to be milk instead of cheese as the end product. However, It’s of course possible to produce milk from cheese so both projects might turn out the same way. It might still be some differences if they go for optimizing milk taste versus optimizing cheese taste.
This is a really old one. But back in the 90’s the first GM products to be approved by FDA was artificially produced rennet using recombinant DNA expressed in bacteria – E.coli (“FDA Approves 1st Genetically Engineered Product for Food,” 1990). It has also been produced using other organisms – typically fungi. Rennet is used when making cheese, and is traditionally extracted from the stomach of calves. Here we also can replace an animal product by using GM-technology.
Wherever we use animal proteins, single proteins or mixtures, there is room for transitioning into using microbial produced proteins instead of animal proteins thanks to GMO. As I discussed in the previous GMO blog post, there is no reason to be against GMOs, in fact, I think that vegans really should embrace GMO as a part of abolishing the use of animal products.
AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY. (2011). New method for making human-based gelatin. Retrieved January 14, 2016, from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-07/acs-nmf071311.php
Crea, R., Kraszewski, A., Hirose, T., & Itakura, K. (1978). Chemical synthesis of genes for human insulin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 75(12), 5765–5769. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC393054/
Duan, H., Umar, S., Xiong, R., & Chen, J. (2011). New Strategy for Expression of Recombinant Hydroxylated Human-Derived Gelatin in Pichia pastoris KM71. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 59(13), 7127–7134. doi:10.1021/jf200778r
FDA Approves 1st Genetically Engineered Product for Food. (1990). Retrieved January 15, 2016, from http://articles.latimes.com/1990-03-24/news/mn-681_1_genetically-engineered-product-for-food
Real vegan cheese. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2016, from https://realvegancheese.org/
Real Vegan Cheese! (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2016, from https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/real-vegan-cheese#/