Earlier today, I ate a scoop of chocolate ice cream – creamy and pleasantly fatty feeling in my mouth. This would hardly seem newsworthy, except for the high-tech ingredient that made my frozen treat go down so smoothly: dairy proteins produced in a lab, no cows needed.

The realm of plant-based meat substitutes has gotten a lot of buzz lately. Think the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat – companies that use biochemistry to mimic the taste and texture of meat using plant-based ingredients. There’s another frontier along these lines – start-ups that use microbes to create egg, dairy and other animal proteins without the animals.

Their pitch: Sustainability. Livestock agriculture uses lots of water and land resources, and produces significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

“If you can produce just the proteins that you want without keeping a living animal alive, that’s going to be a lot more efficient, so it’s better for the environment,” says Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, which promotes plant- and cell-based alternatives to animal protein. And he says as the technology scales up, it should be a lot cheaper to produce proteins this way, too.

Among the early entrants in this field is Perfect Day, producer of the aforementioned ice cream. The company took the genetic code for the main proteins in whey, a byproduct of cheese-making, then had it artificially synthesized into a molecule of DNA – so the process is “totally animal free,” says Perfect Day co-founder Ryan Pandya. Then they genetically engineered microbes to produce the same proteins through fermentation.  […]