Truth, if the saying is often stranger than fiction. The very idea of bringing the long-extinct woolly mammoth back to life was fantasy not so long ago, but scientists are already working on ways to achieve something close to that, using DNA from soft tissue in frozen mammoth remains and recreating it. connecting it with a modern elephant.
But while such “de-extinction” projects may or may not ultimately succeed, one company already claims to have produced the first meat product made from mammoth DNA.
Vowan Australian cultured food company that makes meat from animal cells in a laboratory setting says it used advanced molecular engineering to bring the woolly mammoth to life in meatball form, by combining original mammoth DNA with fragments of DNA from an African elephant.
There is no doubt that cultured meat is coming, evidenced by the myriad of companies raising huge amounts of venture capital to produce meat and fish from animal cells in a lab, and also by the fact that companies are now beginning to receive the blessings of regulators such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But while pork sausages and seafood make sense insofar as they’re foods people are familiar with, Vow — which closed a $49.2 million funding round just a few months ago — clearly raises the bar with its foray into the world of extinct animals.
It is worth acknowledging that there is a significant element of marketing magic in this announcement. The concept itself was devised by the communications agency and WPP subsidiary Wonderman Thompson, which tells us something about the intent here — this is really a promotional campaign for Vow. But at the same time it is also a promotional campaign for cultured meat in general and the role it could play in creating a sustainable source of protein that does not involve killing animals. By some estimates about 60% of greenhouse gas emissions of food production derive from animal feed, double that of vegetable equivalents.
“The goal behind creating the giant meatball was actually to start that discussion about food, and what that decision to eat meat really means for the world at large, by bringing an extinct protein back to life,” James RyallVow’s chief science officer said in a video promoting the mammoth meatball.
Ryall said the company first identified the mammoth myoglobina protein essential for giving meat its color and flavor, then used publicly available data to identify the DNA sequence in mammoths.
“We filled in any gaps in the DNA sequence of this mammoth myoglobin gene by using the genome of the African elephant, the mammoth’s closest living relative.” [editor’s note: it’s actually the Asian elephant that is the mammoth’s closest living relative]’ said Ryall. “We inserted the mammoth myoglobin gene into our cells using a very low current and high voltage charge. Then we continued to grow and multiply these cells, just as would happen thousands of years ago in a mammoth. And the amazing of this is that not a single animal had to die to produce the mammoth meatball.”
This isn’t the first time scientists have created food products from extinct animals. In 2018, a VC-backed Silicon Valley startup called Geltor made gummies using protein from a mastodon, another distant relative of elephants. However, in the latter case, it is believed that no one has tasted one of the giant meatballs. Speak against the Guardian newspaper, Professor Ernst Wolvetang, of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering at the University of Queensland, who worked with Vow on this project, suggested it is probably not safe to try the meatball at this time, even if regulators allow it .
“We haven’t seen this protein for thousands of years,” Wolvetang said. “So we have no idea how our immune system would react if we eat it. But if we were to do it again, we could certainly do it in a way that would make it more palatable to regulators.”
The mammoth meatball is officially unveiled today at the Nemo Science Museum in the Netherlands.