042 | 100
Claudia Vickers
Food futures

30 min 27 sec

Claudia Vickers is the Chief Scientific Officer of Eden Brew, formulating sustainable animal-free milk products by mapping cow milk genes to produce dairy proteins for a low carbon future. Vickers is the former director of CSIRO’s Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform. The unit’s goal is to develop a local industry based on synthetic biology technologies to help the nation manage plant stress under various climate change scenarios. Vickers was the founding president of Synthetic Biology Australia and has advised a variety of government and non-government organisations.

 

Rae Johnston is a multi-award-winning STEM journalist, Wiradjuri woman, mother and broadcaster. The first Science & Technology Editor for NITV at SBS, she was previously the first female editor of Gizmodo Australia, and the first Indigenous editor of Junkee.  She is a part of the prestigious ‘brains trust’ the Leonardos group for The Science Gallery Melbourne, a mentor with The Working Lunch program supporting entry-level women in STEM and an ambassador for both St Vincent De Paul and the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge.

Synthetic biologists like Claudia Vickers are developing new methods of food production to fight climate change and transform carbon intensive industries. Metabolic engineering of organisms by synthetic biologists could also produce valuable raw building materials and provide energy for future fuels using sustainable methods.

We’ve had the Steam Revolution, we’ve had the Electricity Revolution, and then we’ve had the IT Revolution, and now we’ve got the Biological Revolution where we’re learning to use biology as a tool to solve major problems. And it’s just so exciting.

– Claudia Vickers

You can do so many things with [synthetic biology]. The area that I work in is called metabolic engineering and that is basically redesigning cells to make industrially useful compounds.

– Claudia Vickers

If you’re going to make a difference in the real world…in terms of sustainability and climate…you need to be doing something at bulk that connects directly with an industry that has emissions issues or sustainability issues.

– Claudia Vickers

[Evermilk by Eden Brew produces] one third of the carbon emissions, five per cent of the land use and one per cent of the water compared to milk and other milk replacements.

– Claudia Vickers

By round about 2030, we should see animal free, sustainable milk on the market at the same costs as a litre of cow’s milk.

– Claudia Vickers

60 to 80 per cent of our material in food inputs could be made by synthetic biology.

– Claudia Vickers

We’ve had the Steam Revolution, we’ve had the Electricity Revolution, and then we’ve had the IT Revolution, and now we’ve got the Biological Revolution where we’re learning to use biology as a tool to solve major problems. And it’s just so exciting.

– Claudia Vickers

Rae Johnston

Welcome everyone to 100 Climate Conversations. Thank you so much for joining us. Today is number 42 of 100 conversations happening every Friday, and this series presents 100 visionary Australians that are taking positive action to respond to the most critical issue of our time, which is climate change. We are recording live today in the Boiler Hall of the Powerhouse museum. Before it was home to the museum, it was the Ultimo Power Station. It was built in 1899 and it supplied coal powered electricity to Sydney’s tram system into the 1960s. In the context of this architectural artefact, we now shift our focus forward to the innovations of the net zero revolution.

Yiradhumarang mudyi, Rae Johnston youwin nahdee Wiradjuri yinhaa baladoo. Hello, friends. My name is Rae Johnston. I am a Wiradjuri woman. I was born and raised on Darug and Gundungurra Country that’s where I have responsibilities to community and Country. And it is an honour to be here with you today on the unceded land of the sovereign Gadigal, and I wish to pay my deepest respects to their Elders, past and present, and also extend that respect to any of my First Nations aunties and uncles, brothers and sisters that might be here with us today. Now, as we begin today’s conversation, it is important to remember and acknowledge and respect that the world’s first scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians are the sovereign First Nations peoples of this continent from the world’s oldest continuing cultures despite all attempts to erase them.

Claudia Vickers, joining me today is the chief scientific officer of Eden Brew, formulating sustainable animal free milk products by mapping cow milk genes to produce dairy proteins for a low carbon future. We are so thrilled to have her join us today. Please join me in welcoming Claudia. So good to have you here. I’m so excited to speak with you, but I’ll start at the beginning. You grew up on a farm in New Zealand before immigrating to Australia with your family in your teens. What was it about these early years that developed a curiosity about the natural world and your love of science?

Claudia Vickers

So growing up on a farm, biology is all around you and you also, if you have a problem to solve, you have got to solve it with whatever is around you because the nearest town is quite some distance away. So, my mum was a research scientist, and my dad is an electrical engineer and they had this rather large hobby farm in the Canterbury Plains in New Zealand. And growing up on that farm, I spent my time building cubby houses, helping Dad fix things on the farm, observing and learning from the natural environment around me. And so, I think that combining those two things really sort of led me to the engineering of biology as a career path.

RJ

I do need to ask, and I’d love to hear you explain it. What is synthetic biology? The two words don’t seem to go together.

CV

Yeah, so I actually had a friend who taught year seven several years ago and I said, would you go ask your students and tell me what they come back with when they hear those words? And they came up with this beautiful definition, which is synthetic is like not normal, not natural and biology is like living things so I guess it’s like making biology kind of like building things out of living Lego blocks. I thought that was beautiful and it actually really is like that, right? So basically, it’s using DNA, which is the code of life to build biological machines and devices all the way from very, very simple things like proteins and enzymes to very complex networks and using those to get living cells to solve problems.

You can do so many things with [synthetic biology]. The area that I work in is called metabolic engineering and that is basically redesigning cells to make industrially useful compounds.

– Claudia Vickers

RJ

So how are scientists worldwide looking to synthetic biology to solve some of the challenges presented by climate change?

CV

Yes, so the thing about synthetic biology is that you can do so many things with it. The area that I work in is called metabolic engineering, and that is basically redesigning cells to make industrially useful compounds like proteins and pharmaceuticals, insulin, flavours, fragrances. It might be feedstock chemicals which can be polymerised to make plastics. Plastics start as individual monomers and you polymerise them and make them into plastics. But what if we could make those not from fossil fuels, but from sustainable resources and biodegradable plastics that can be recycled and even infinitely recycled? Right.

So we can make chemicals, we can make fuels, we can make pretty much anything using this process. And it’s estimated that something like 60 or 70 per cent of the material components that we need, and of our food, of course, could be made using synthetic biology. Using more sustainable processes, using – emitting less greenhouse gases, using less land, and using less water than classical petrochemical processes.

RJ

I was wondering if you had any examples of your innovations that people might be surprised to know actually are synthetic biology?

CV

Okay, so a really good example is insulin. So, insulin is made in the pancreatic cells and it’s obviously got a critical role as a hormone in regulating blood glucose levels. But we don’t want to harvest it from human beings, that would be unethical to use it to treat people with diabetes. It used to be harvested from pigs and it would take some ridiculous number of pigs, in the thousands, to generate enough insulin to treat a person with diabetes, so an obvious better way to do that is take the DNA that encodes for that insulin and put it into a bacteria or a yeast, and that tells the yeast to make that insulin protein and you can then extract that and use it to treat the diabetes. So that’s one sort of almost everyday example of synthetic biology, another example in the food space is the impossible burger that you can buy in Grill’d. Have you had an impossible burger?

RJ

Yes, I have.

CV

This is a wonderful example. So, the impossible burger is made using a protein called leghemoglobin. So, everybody knows that we’ve got haemoglobin in our red blood cells or in our blood, plants also make a protein called leghemoglobin, which is basically plant haemoglobin. And mostly it’s a plant called a legume, which is your beans and peas. Now that protein looks exactly like haemoglobin and haemoglobin is the thing in your red blood which makes your steak taste nice and sizzly and crispy and you can take that leghemoglobin and mix it in with the plant proteins and make a plant-based burger patty that sizzles and smells good and –

RJ

Magical, really isn’t it, when you think about it.

CV

Yeah. And that that’s the first food product that’s been approved in Australia and we are planning for our product to be the next one that is approved in Australia with synthetic biology.

RJ

You were the founding president of Synthetic Biology Australasia and you’ve been on the forefront of the science in Australia for many years, how have you pushed for it to be invested in?

CV

So when I was a younger scientist and I found out about this thing called synthetic biology, I was like, ‘This is for me, this is amazing it’s really where I want to go,’ but there’s a little bit of a problem, there’s no brand recognition for this field in the country. And I’m not going to be able to get funding or have a career in the space if nobody knows what it is. Okay, how are we going to solve this problem? All right let’s first get a bunch of people together and work out what synthetic biology is and how we need to nurture it and recognise the value of it. So, I found some funding and brought together 40 or 50 scientists and a Vice-Chancellor and a Deputy Vice-Chancellor of research or two together to spend the day workshop saying, ‘Okay, what do we need and how do we go about building this science as a field in the country?’

And out of that came Synthetic Biology Australasia, which is a professional society, which has several hundred members now, and I was president of that for several years and then passed it on to the next person and it’s, flourishing now and really I think put Australia on the map in terms of being active in synthetic biology because we’re a bit late to the party it’s really going on extensively in the US and the UK, well before Australia really became very well engaged.

So that sort of was the first step, but the next step was right, well, we need for governments to recognise that this is a priority and to help get it funded and supported through as many mechanisms as possible and so I ended up doing quite a lot of outreach and engagement at federal and state government level, explaining what is this technology and why is it important and how does it plug in to national strategies in the country and such forth and eventually I got this – I got a phone call one day out of the blue from Paul Birch at CSIRO and he says, ‘Oh Claudia’ – he’s American – ‘Claudia, could you go down and have a chat to Malcolm Turnbull please, and tell him how important synthetic biology is?’

RJ

And he was Prime Minister at the time?

CV

He was Prime Minister at the time, and I was like, ‘Sure, no problem, off we go.’

RJ

Regular Wednesday, off I go.

CV

Pretty much. So I was working with Alan Finkel, who was the chief scientist of Australia at the time, and it was part of the Prime Minister’s Science Council, which was headed by its very notable scientists, including Brian Schmidt, who’s a Nobel laureate and there was little old me and I had this four minute hard deadline, no technology allowed, so it’s got to be printouts of your slides that you’re making.

RJ

That’s fascinating, isn’t it? You’re going into a space where you’re pitching the future, and you can’t take any technology with you.

CV

Yes, exactly, you can’t even take a smartwatch.

RJ

Are they scared you’re going to record it or something?

CV

They’re scared that a bug or something will end up in the room and if anybody goes in there with a smartwatch or a phone or anything, then the Australian Federal Police have to sweep it and it costs $25,000, which is quite expensive.

If you’re going to make a difference in the real world…in terms of sustainability and climate…you need to be doing something at bulk that connects directly with an industry that has emissions issues or sustainability issues.

– Claudia Vickers

RJ

That is a lot of money! So, you’re in there with your piece of paper?

CV

I’m in there with my piece of paper and I sort of did a bit of – because I don’t usually script things, so I was like, okay, 4 minutes, that’s short enough, it probably should be scripted. And what’s it going to be like? I imagined there’s going to be people and they’re going to be reading my handouts, right? And it’s going to be a roomful of heads that I’m presenting to, and it was exactly that, so they were there reading and I was doing my little piece. So, I looked over when I finished and Prime Minister Turnbull looked up and he looked at me and said, ‘Sounds great, go for it’. I was like, ‘Oh great’. We had a few questions and answers and that was it.

Out of that, the Australian Council of Learned Academies then went on to do a horizon scanning report into synthetic biology and what its potential importance was for Australia and really sort of put it on the map as a policy priority. And shortly after that the CSIRO funded the Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform and asked me to come on board and lead that future science platform. So that was the $13 Million package of funding and the direction to me was, build a collaborative community of practice across Australia, not just in CSIRO but including universities and research organisations. It needs to be nationally and internationally linked so we need to be plugging in to what’s happening in the rest of the world and we need to take advantage of what’s going on already and leapfrog to as close to the front of the field as we can.

So that was one part of it, and that was really easy actually, because you just sort of turn up with a little bit of money and say, ‘If you put this money in, I’ll put this money in, and everyone will be happy, and we can do great research,’ and people respond really well to that. So, I leveraged that into sort of a $60 million program, which is a sizeable program in the Australian context, to get that field up and running. Now the second part of it was more challenging. The second part of it was to develop a framework for a translational ecosystem, to get the science out of the research sector and into the real world where it can make an actual difference. And I spent, again, a lot of time working with state and federal government, doing road mapping, identifying where the gaps are in our translational pipeline. So in particular, in scale up and a major gap is in getting people out of universities and accessing laboratory space in order that they can take that out of the university context and build companies out of it and build startup companies and be supported through that process.

And so we did a bit of work in that space and developed some frameworks and some tools to help, but there was still a lot more to do. So that’s the harder thing to do, was [to] really develop that ecosystem. And so, I finished that – I’d done that five years at CSIRO and I came out going there’s more to do, but, I don’t know what it’s like in industry because I’d never worked in industry. And so that was my transition to go, alright, I’m going to try and do this thing, I’m going to do a startup. For me, it was time in my life to do something that could make a difference. The reason that Eden Brew attracted me is that milk as a commodity, it’s at massive scale, and if you’re going to make a difference in the real world, it can’t be in high value flavours and fragrances or pharmaceuticals even, in terms of sustainability and climate change. You’re not going to make a difference with those products, and those are the areas that I’ve worked in previously, you need to be doing something at bulk that connects directly with an industry that has emissions issues or sustainability issues, and that’s why Eden Brew is a perfect match for what I wanted to do philosophically.

RJ

If I was a customer walking into a store and I saw your milk on the shelf – how would you be communicating to me what this milk is and how it’s made?

CV

So firstly you’ll see it branded as EverMilk and our branding is all around a new dawn for dairy, so it’s like a 50s corner milk bar that you go into where – you’re probably old enough, I’m definitely old enough – bottles of glass milk with the aluminium foil, you know, that you peel off and stick your finger and have a cream in the morning.

RJ

I remember that from early childhood, yes.

CV

So, in terms of what is this milk, this is milk, right. How we can actually brand it I’m not sure because it hasn’t gone through a regulatory process yet –

RJ

Yeah, it hasn’t gone through a cow.

CV

It hasn’t gone through a cow, but it’s milk. And we do that by taking the genes in cows – no cows though, so we order the genes basically from an online catalogue and then we take that DNA and we put it inside yeast, and that DNA tells the yeast to make the proteins that you find in milk, and then we brew it up, just like making beer, you filter out the cells and then you take the proteins from the remaining liquid and you recreate milk from that. It’s not plant based milk like almond milk or something like that, it’s made with plant-based ingredients so we add in plant-based fats and – as well as the proteins that we make, and a little bit of sugar – and by the way, if you’re allergic to lactose or you can’t drink lactose, no problem we don’t need to put lactose in there.

So, we call it cultured milk or brewed milk. It’s a new sector and we haven’t landed on how we use that, how we speak to what exactly we call it yet, but it’s sustainable milk, right. So, I think there’s a bit of working across the industry, but as Eden Brew we look to really lead that language and we’re doing a lot of market research to find out what appeals to people and what interests people about that product and why they would buy it and engage with that. And it turns out that something like 30 per cent of people would purchase a product for its sustainability credentials –

RJ

Oh, that’s good to hear.

CV

75 per cent of people try alternative milk products because of sustainability and other issues every year, most of them go back to dairy because they can’t get the same experience.

[Evermilk by Eden Brew produces] one third of the carbon emissions, five per cent of the land use and one per cent of the water compared to milk and other milk replacements.

– Claudia Vickers

RJ

So how does your milk make a positive impact from an environmental and climate standpoint compared straight side by side to regular milk and the processes used to create that?

CV

So one third of the carbon emissions, five per cent of the land use and one per cent of the water compared to milk and other milk replacements so there’s a variety of different products that fare better or worse on those scales. And that’s huge, especially the water. So the water is critically important, and the dairy industry, obviously, there’s carbon emissions, but there’s also environmental degradation, there’s runoff and a variety of other issues. Now, we’re not interested in flagellating the dairy industry, we’re actually backed by the dairy industry because Norco is our partner. So, Norco is Australia’s only farmer owned dairy cooperative and they see us as a diversification of their business model and as the next step in dairy.

RJ

So how does it make sense for Norco to be involved in something that it seems should be a competitor?

CV

Well, I mean, I think you can view it as a competitor, or you can view it as a diversification or an addition to your business with essentially the same product. So, when we make our proteins, we take them to the Norco production facility and we feed it into their plant exactly the same as cow’s milk and it goes through the pasteurisation line, goes through the bottling line, comes out the other end and is distributed. So, it’s really just another additional source of the product for them to use. And I think it’s – the demand for high quality protein is increasing rapidly. So, say we’re just producing the same level of protein, the demand is outstripping the availability. And if you have other sources to deliver that protein that tie in nicely with your production and distribution lines and your market, why not use that?

RJ

So they could be using their equipment to help produce your milk?

CV

Exactly. A milk factory can do exactly what we need it to do. We’re also making ice cream, so our first product on the market is going to be ice cream I’m so excited about that.

RJ

So that’s your first product? Not going straight in with the milk you’re going in with the ice cream?

CV

The milk’s a lot more complicated. You can make an ice cream out of a single protein, you need six proteins to make milk. And, I mean, milk’s amazing so, let me tell you a little bit about how, you –

RJ

Please, tell me all about milk.

CV

So it’s an incredible fluid because it, as I said, it’s evolved to be the most valuable and beneficial nutritional complement for mammals like us, right. And so it’s able to deliver this incredibly dense nutritional benefit and it does that because there’s a thing in it called a micelle, which is a protein particle that hangs in the liquid suspension and it’s made out of four different casein proteins and they’re the curd proteins. So you know when you’ve got milk you separate it into whey and curd? So [there are] two major proteins in the whey and four major proteins in the curd or the casein section. And the caseins assemble into this very sort of open and porous structure that nonetheless binds very high levels of calcium and other nutrients and delivers that in a much more bioavailable way to the digestive system where it provides a really high level of satiation and satiety. So, it digested sort of more slowly over time, so you can actually have a glass of milk and it lasts quite a long time –

RJ

You feel full for a long time.

CV

And you feel full just like our little babies do when we feed them. And it also produces opiate like compounds that make you happy and fall asleep as well, which is why when you when you breastfeed a baby or feed a baby, they fall asleep afterwards.

RJ

Or when I eat a lot of cheese.

CV

Or when you eat a lot of cheese.

RJ

I’m happy and sleepy.

CV

Cheese would be a product we make as well, along with chocolate and sports – nutrition supplements and yoghurt and all sorts of different things. Yeah.

RJ

This is amazing. Could you theoretically and practically reproduce milk from other animals?

CV

Absolutely. What sort of milk would you like me to make?

RJ

Us?

CV

Yes, 100 per cent. In fact, I think that’s a major opportunity. Especially for mothers who can’t breastfeed for one reason or another. I breastfed two of my children, or I have two children I breastfed them both, and it’s not easy, actually, it’s one of the most difficult things about being a mother, I think. And there’s a whole variety of different milks and markets out there that we could go to who are interested in different products. Imagine an infant formula that is formulated from human identical milk, I think that would be wonderful.

RJ

How long do you think it will be before we get to drink your milk and eat your ice cream and eat your cheese and –

CV

Ice cream in about 12 months.

By round about 2030, we should see animal free, sustainable milk on the market at the same costs as a litre of cow’s milk.

– Claudia Vickers

RJ

12 months? That’s not far away!

CV

It’s not far away at all, and milk in 18 to 24 months. It will come in at about price parity with milk alternatives, so four and a half, $5 a litre for the more expensive milk alternatives like your almond milks and things like that. As time goes by and the technology improves and our titres improve and our process improves and the science improves behind it, we can bring that price down and down so by round about 2030, we should see animal free, sustainable milk on the market at the same cost as a litre of cow’s milk.

RJ

So what kind of infrastructure do you have in place today?

CV

So we outsource to a contract manufacturer to actually do the scale up, but in-house, so we’re actually a CSIRO spin out company, which is an amazing benefit because we have 120 years of CSIRO and dairy science behind us. And the scientists we have working on this are really just amazing, incredibly knowledgeable scientists. As a consequence of that, we’ve been able to move the science extremely, extremely quickly. So, we have the ability to modify the strain, we have the ability to do the protein chemistry for making those micelles that I talked about, those protein particles, which is not nontrivial with the proteins that are made for the yeast system. We have fermentation facilities so that we can – they’re called bioreactors and you can control the conditions in them – so we have access to fermentation and fermentation scientists, downstream processing to remove the yeast and clean up the protein, and a bit of scale up capability there as well.

RJ

Does synthetic biology always mean genetically modified?

CV

Well, that’s an excellent question, and there’s not a simple answer. So, I’m on the advisory panel for Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. There’s another government organisation called the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, and there’s quite a lot of technical complexity that sits behind whether something is considered genetically modified or not.

So, the product itself, if it doesn’t have any G in it, any genes in it, if it doesn’t have any organism in it, then potentially it’s not genetically modified, but you can use a genetically modified organism as a processing agent, right? So, for our product, for example, the protein is nature identical in its amino acid sequence, so it’s exactly the same as a protein that cows make, it’s indistinguishable, but you use a genetically modified yeast to make that protein. But there are other processes which aren’t considered to be – and our process, in the end, depending on what the regulatory process is, may not be considered to be genetically modified. So, we’re going through that process now to better understand.

RJ

And there was a pretty significant public backlash towards genetic modification of crops in particular back in the 90s. Has the public perception changed? Do you think that if there’s still people out there that are concerned that you might be able to alleviate their concerns somehow?

CV

Yes, so I grew up as a scientist, as a plant molecular biologist, doing applied crop engineering in barley and wheat. So I remember a time clearly where I had to walk out of a conference by the back door because an NGO was protesting out the front. And they had paid for a registration for someone to come in and heckle me as a PHD student, which was, you know, it was an experience, it was daunting. And, obviously, I remember it fairly clearly. So, that was really the height of the concerns about GMO and I feel since then, which is sort of 20 plus years ago now, that there really has been a dramatic change to the way that we as human beings engage with technology. For example, we’ve all got these iPhones and so forth, they’re an extension of our arms, you know, we couldn’t live without them and it’s a technological thing.

So, when you talk to the millennial generation, they’re are a lot more comfortable with a wide variety of different types of technologies being part of their lives. And I think that actually includes biotechnologies as well. So, if we go out to the public and talk about – I mean, we generally focus on what the benefits are and we see people being less concerned about the process to achieve the benefits, particularly where there’s a sustainability or a consumer benefit, a taste or a nutritional benefit that comes out of it.

Those kinds of technologies are much more acceptable I think. And there’s a lot more education levels, I guess, in the population about what it is and what it is not and what it can do for us nowadays. So, I think it’s, personally for me, it’s really changed dramatically over time and when I was with the CSIRO, we did quite a lot of work on the social science side of things as well. So, the program that I was running there was both by physical sciences and engineering and social sciences. And we had an amazing team of social scientists there looking at a whole variety of different socially engaged elements of the technologies that we’re developing.

60 to 80 per cent of our material in food inputs could be made by synthetic biology.

– Claudia Vickers

RJ

Fantastic. Do you think – I think I already know the answer to this – but do you think that applications of synthetic biology will play an increasing role in mitigating and adapting to climate change in the future?

CV

Yeah, I think so. Something like, as I said, 60 to 80 per cent of our material and food inputs could be made by synthetic biology. But also there’s other applications, so bioremediation, so engineered systems to clean up mine tailings, there’s engineering coral reefs so that they’re more tolerant to heat and climate change, so that our coral reef systems don’t collapse, which would be an absolute disaster if we have time to do that. There is almost no end of different applications.

So engineered insect systems that degrade plastics are underway, there’s so many different applications in terms of environmental applications, sustainable applications. Food is just sort of one corner of it, it’s one I’m particularly passionate about, but there are so many things that we can be doing with this technology. What we’re seeing now is just the beginning of the next Industrial Revolution. We’ve gone through history, we’ve had the Steam Revolution, we’ve had the Electricity Revolution, and then we’ve had the IT Revolution, and now we’ve got the Biological Revolution where we’re learning to use biology as a tool to solve major problems and it’s just so exciting.

RJ

Please join me in a round of applause for Claudia, everyone. To follow this program online, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. To visit the 100 Climate Conversations exhibition or join us for a live recording, go to 100climateconversations.com.

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