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Synthetic Biology’s Miracle Milk

Health & Medicine
Food & Nutrition
Emerging Technologies
by
Peter Bickerton, PhD
|
December 5, 2023

The saying goes: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But why should a lack of lemons stop you? 

[Alexandrumagurean (Canva)]

Several years ago, while working for Google, TurtleTree CEO Fengru Lin was getting well into cheesemaking. She’d been on a two-week course in Vermont and was hooked.

But back in Singapore, there wasn’t any fresh, raw milk available.

She searched far and wide, from Thailand to Indonesia. But nowhere could she find milk of the quality needed.

To make great cheese, you need moo juice with mojo, preferably from dairy cattle that are raised without things like antibiotics.

So, the cheesemaking was shelved. Until, that is, a moment of serendipity. Max Rye was in town, giving a talk about cell-based meat technologies and companies like Upside Foods and BlueNalu.

“It blew my mind,” says Fengru. “I couldn't believe that you can make meat and seafood without the animal. So we started talking about using similar methods to make milk.”

Conversations became conceptualizations, and soon enough, Fengru and Max co-founded TurtleTree.

TurtleTree Co-Founder and CEO Fengru Lin [Image courtesy of TurtleTree]

Lactoferrin

Fast forward four years, and TurtleTree has just made a huge breakthrough.

Fengru actually joined our call mid-celebration, as TurtleTree’s precision-fermented, animal-free lactoferrin was approved for commercialization in the US.

This significant milestone means TurtleTree can now start ramping up its production of lactoferrin.

Their customers will soon be adding it to supplement products such as plant-based milk—a $35 billion dollar market—and adult nutrition products like energy drinks.

But wait. Weren't we talking about making milk?

Business Bites

While TurtleTree mapped out its milk-making strategy, it became clear that it wouldn't make hay in the short term.

Milk sells at $2 a gallon. There are 9 million dairy cattle in the US alone. That's some stiff competition, and making milk from stem cells is another step more complicated than making cultured meat.

Not only do you need to differentiate the right cells, you need to fine-tune them to produce a mix of thousands of ingredients to make milk. And that’s expensive.

A vial of TurtleTree's "Pink Gold," aka Lactoferrin [Image courtesy of TurtleTree]

“It’s a really complex process,” says Fengru. “Today, it's just not commercially viable.”

But milk is full of really good stuff. Lactoferrin, for example, is used to boost infant formula to better mimic breast milk, in which lactoferrin is abundant.

Lactoferrin has benefits for immunity, iron regulation, and gut health. Some have called it a “miracle molecule.”

But it is found in tiny amounts in milk. You need 1000 jugs just to make a single supplement pill. Lactoferrin currently retails at $750-1500 per kilo, and demand far outstrips supply.

“The price really fluctuates,” explains Fengru. “Some years, it gets to $3000 per kilo. If we're able to produce lactoferrin at a stable price point, we can open up the market to put lactoferrin in different food products, such as adult nutrition.”

Precision Fermentation

There’s something beautiful about TurtleTree’s story.

After all, the company was inspired by cheese, and cheese was the first product to benefit from precision fermentation.

Rennet, the milk-curdling enzyme used to make cheese, once came solely from cattle but is now manufactured mostly using engineered microbes.

It’s that same precision fermentation process TurtleTree now uses to move lactoferrin production from cow to yeast.

In a hundred years, this will make a great chicken and egg story. What came first? Cow-free milk or cow-free cheese?

So how’s it made?

First, you identify the genetic sequence of lactoferrin and introduce this into yeast cells using synthetic biology techniques. Engineered cells are then grown up in bioreactors, where they gobble up sugar and turn it into lactoferrin. The protein is then separated from the microbes and purified.

Armed with their new certification, TurtleTree now aims to ramp up production.

“Right now, we are at 15,000-liter tank capacity,” says Fengru. “Coming Q1, we're moving up 190,000 liters—and that would be industrial scale.”

A New Dairy

That sort of scale-up (from already 10 metric tons in TurteTree’s first commercial year) offers a massive increase in lactoferrin production capacity compared with milk.

It offers an insight into a potentially more sustainable route to producing dairy products.

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Perfect Day, another company in the synthetic biology dairy sphere, focuses on whey protein—the stuff of bodybuilder protein shakes.

They commissioned a study that showed the environmental impact of precision-fermented whey could have 91-97% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, 29-60% lower energy demand, and use 96-99% less water than traditional dairy.

These are promising numbers for those looking to make more environmentally conscious choices regarding their food, and TurtleTree is currently working on a similar comparison for its lactoferrin process.

But it’s not about replacing milk—a nutritious product with enormous benefits—in its entirety.

“The dairy industry is here to feed us and to support us,” says Fengru. “It's not about changing what's existing. With the next two billion people coming by 2050, it's about filling that gap.

“If you look at technology like ours, we are trying, ingredient-by-ingredient, to help alleviate some of the sustainability challenges coming from cow’s milk.”

Milk Still on the Agenda

The ingredient-by-ingredient philosophy is also being pursued by other companies in the space, including Eden Brew, which is looking to launch a simpler ice cream product before moving on to the more complex matter of milk.

[Albert (Canva)]

Other companies include Remilk, which has a cream cheese alternative, while Change Foods and New Culture are turning precision-fermented dairy proteins into products that, while not quite the real deal, resemble cheeses like mozzarella.

But make no mistake, milk is still high on the agenda for Fengru and TurtleTree.

“Milk is still a personal dream of mine, especially around infant nutrition,” says Fengru. “If we're able to produce human milk for infant nutrition, I think it has the potential to really help transform infant health.

“It’s still a long-term goal, and we just know that it's going to be a longer period of time before we can get to anything commercially viable.”

For now, it’s about making an immediate impact on the market and opening up sustainable and scalable dairy proteins to new customers—first in the US, then Singapore, and eventually, the rest of the world.

“Commercialization is the name of the game,” says Fengru. “Lactoferrin is just the start. It’s a vital step in realizing our broader commercialization strategy and in enhancing access to milk's most powerful ingredients.”

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