Insights from a Strain Engineer: Inside the World of Non-Animal Dairy Strain Engineering

Lexin Ann Morales     

Lexin recently spoke to Neil Adames, Senior Scientist I - Strain Engineering of New Culture, where his role revolves around designing and generating microbial strains for expression of milk proteins for use in animal-free dairy products. As a Strain Engineer, Neil emphasized the importance of having broad skills and knowledge base to become successful.

A Day in the Life of a Strain Engineer in Animal-Free  Dairy

Neil's day to day focus is on creating casein, a dairy protein found in milk. He designs cells to produce milk components for high-quality vegan cheeses that are affordable--which helps reduce our dependence on cattle and minimizes the environmental impact of the dairy industry. But the fun part? His day to day isn't just about whipping up casein proteins; it's filled with a bunch of other different, cool stuff too. "This is what I've always liked about my role, I'm not doing the same thing every day," he shares. "It's generally either synthesizing DNA, DNA cloning, and making the strains that we want to test. One day we'll be doing lots of cell culture and analysis of our casein protein, on some other days we're making new strains, and some days we're making DNA."

Crafting the Future of Dairy

As a Strain Engineer focusing on animal-freedairy products, Neil sees the importance of his role to the environment. "The production of some agricultural products, can make lots of greenhouse gases, and can be damaging to land and waterways," Neil explains. "For instance, for dairy cattle, there is a lot of methane production. By being able to make the functional proteins without relying on cows, we can conserve valuable resources and also help prevent significant future increases in greenhouse gas emissions."

Challenges Along The Way

Working in a start-up company doesn't just challenge Neil's skills, it also shapes his ability to wear multiple hats. His advice? Be flexible and maximize the company's resources skillfully. "It's very hard to go through a lot of variations in a biological design, so you have to be prepared. For instance, before doing anything big, we do small scale fermentation to know if the strains are behaving properly or not." Neil also emphasized the importance of using many tools as much as possible: "What you need to do is to test as many things as possible, see what comes out, so you can dive into the details and a handful of possibilities later during the process."

The Path to Success in Animal-Free  Dairy Strain Engineers: Communication Skills, Patience, and Protein Expertise

"Aside from the genetic and engineering skills, you need to have a fairly broad skill and knowledge base about the cells expressing the proteins and the functionality of proteins," Neil answers when asked about his secret to success. "You can produce bucketloads of proteins, but if it doesn't make cheese--it's useless!" The bottom line? Know which protein makes a good cheese. "Whenever you start out, you won't even know whether the protein is going to work well or not, since casein proteins are largely unstructured. In this, it's more of a trial and error--so patience is very important."

"In this industry, collaboration is crucial. You will work on a team of people who have their own expertise--so you need to collaborate deeply by keeping the communication open. It's important not just to throw jargons at people when communicating, but be simple by changing terminologies to language that people can understand."

For Neil, it's not all about the technical stuff--improving collaboration and communication in this industry is also essential. "Working with a team of individuals who possess their own areas of expertise means you don't have to be an expert in everything. The key is to maintain an open and collaborative approach." To practice open communication, Neil and his team have frequent meetings with people in other departments. "This way, we can practice how to simplify things--well, why would you try to be scientific all the time? It's not like everyone's interested in the technical terms anyway."

Molding the Future: The Future of Cheese in New Culture

If there's anything that Neil is looking forward to, it's the end of 2024. "By that year, we hope to be in a bunch of SF Bay Area pizzerias with our mozzarella, which is really exciting," He shares. "We also partnered with the amazing Chef Nancy Silverton to use our cheese at her LA restaurant, Pizzeria Mozza. Hopefully, through this initiative, we can get the word out that consumers can have delicious cheese without relying on cows."

This article is based on the series: Insights from a Strain Engineer by Gravel. 
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