De Novo Dairy, animal free dairy, Jay Caboz,8BIM
Yeast cultures are grown in petri dishes. Photo Jay Caboz.
  • Cape Town based De Novo Dairy wants to become the first company in Africa to make animal-free dairy protein grown in a petri dish.
  • The key to unlocking it is yeast.  
  • They will essentially brew it like beer, but instead of the yeast making alcohol they'll make dairy proteins.
  • They want to recreate a non-dairy product with the same nutrition, texture, and functionality as traditional dairy – sans the cows.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za. 

A South African based company that initially made tasty food from bugs has now set its sights on becoming the first company in Africa to make a dairy protein from a petri dish. Yip, you that read right.

Cape Town based De Novo Dairy, that first started off making delicious human food under the name Gourmet Grub from black soldier fly larvae, now has a new aspiration: becoming the first company in Africa to make animal-free dairy protein grown in a lab.

Read more | South Africa's first all-insect restaurant is open for business – and the bugs are delicious

While the two business ventures appear to be completely different, co-founder Jean Louwrens says they ultimately have the same goal: providing an alternative sustainable solution for food security in the future.

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Jean Louwrens co-founder De Novo Dairy. Photo Jay Caboz

"We had the idea a while back. But at the time we didn't have the skill set to grow the protein. During lockdown we became more aggressive about it. We are using a little bit more of a consumer-friendly way because as amazing as insects are for people to consume, it wasn't the right time to continue during lockdown," says Louwrens.

The idea behind it is to recreate a non-dairy product with the same nutrition, texture, and functionality as traditional dairy – without any animals being involved. This in turn lightens the burden on the environment as well as potentially assisting future food security.

Ultimately the team wants to create a product that can be supplied to the food industry for use in anything from baking to making cheese and yogurt.  It also offers consumers a vegan alternative that is not only lactose free but would also more closely taste of original cow milk with the same nutrients. 

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Each white spot contains a carefully cultivated colony of yeast. Photo Jay Caboz.

The key to unlocking it is a certain single-celled organism that is part of the fungus kingdom called yeast. While we are more commonly used to seeing it being used in our pizza dough and beer brewing, the concept is proven and completely plausible.

"It's essentially like brewing beer, but instead of the yeast making alcohol we are making the yeast make non-animal dairy proteins which can be used to make real functioning dairy products like cheese, ice cream, and milk," said Louwrens.

The first company to come up with the idea was Perfect Day. Launched in 2014 it has gone on to raise some R4.5 billion in funding, which claims that it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 85% and up to 97% compared to traditional production methods. Others have also followed suit, including Australian-based Eden Brew closing a R58 billion in fund drive and the backing of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

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Biochemist Hendrik Els prepares a culture mix filled with nutrients form which yeast can make dairy proteins. Photo Jay Caboz.
De Novo Dairy, animal free dairy, Jay Caboz,8BIM
a culture mix filled with nutrients form which yeast can make dairy proteins. Photo Jay Caboz.

Replicating their success will be no mean feat. For it to become reality it's going to take a lot of time and effort, says Dr Leah Bessa, co-founder and food scientist. The team is currently in its first eight months of research developing a workable tasty prototype, and it could be a full two years before we can ultimately see a final product on the shelves.

"The challenge for us is all about optimisation. Creating these proteins at a sustainable and economically viable scale," said Bessa.

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Food scientist and co-founder of De Novo Leah Bassa. Photo Jay Caboz.

The process, called precision fermentation, produces the same proteins that are found in cow's milk. While it may seem easy it is anything but simple.

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Yeast cultures are grown in petri dishes. Photo Jay Caboz.

The team starts with making a culture media. The media contains a collection of different nutrients including proteins, fats, sugars and all the micronutrients such as iron and magnesium that are essential for life. They then put yeast into that mixture so that it's got the perfect environment to grow.

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Biochemist Hendrik Els sterilizes equipment used to transfer yeast culture. Photo Jay Caboz.

From there they increase the number of yeasts, so that they have a good number of cells so they can make the protein. The yeast is then isolated and reproduced into hundreds of colonies.

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Co-founder Jean Louwrens sterilizes mixtures in a high pressure chamber. Photo Jay Caboz.

Those colonies are grown in a fermenter, where they act as mini milk-protein production factories.

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Bassa prepares to transfer isolated yeast cultures into a mixture which will then go into fermentation to 'brew' proteins. Photo Jay Caboz. Photo Jay Caboz.
De Novo Dairy, animal free dairy, Jay Caboz,8BIM
Photo Jay Caboz.
De Novo Dairy, animal free dairy, Jay Caboz,8BIM
Photo Jay Caboz.

The milk-proteins are extracted from the fermenter, purified, and combined with healthy plant fats and sugars to create our dairy products - no cows involved.

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