Why whey?One day, Teague was chatting with biology professor Steve Nold, who is working with Curt Basina of the Copper Crow Distillery in Bayfield to find a workable way to turn cheese whey into distilled drinks like vodka and gin.
Because brewer’s yeast can’t ferment lactose, the main carbohydrate in cheese whey, Basina has to use expensive enzyme pretreatment, Teague explained. “I was like, ‘What if we could develop a strain of yeast that could use the lactose directly? There are other organisms that do this. In theory, it shouldn’t be that difficult. In practice we will see. “
ABMB students Andrew Wagner and Haydn Wyckoff transplant DNA constructs into yeast.
In the laboratory, Teague and ABMB students build a series of DNA constructs that enable yeast to metabolize lactose and convert it to ethanol. Then they’ll test small-scale fermentations to see how well the constructs work. Ultimately, they want to try it out on a commercial scale at Copper Crow.
“Making vodka and gin from cheese whey would be a unique product in Wisconsin,” said Teague. “This state produces a lot of cheese, and most of the whey from that production is thrown away. A genetically modified organism could make the distillation process easier, cheaper and more sustainable. “
Ethanol is a vital biofuel and will become increasingly important as we turn away from oil and its climate impact, Teague added. “Ethanol is currently mainly made from corn. But there are many other things we could do with this corn, like feeding cattle and people, ”he said. “Cheese whey, on the other hand, is basically free.”