A bitter feud has broken out over who brought the woolly mammoth to life first – like a meatball.
The extinct delicacy was unveiled last week at Nemo Science Museum The Netherlands. Of course, no mammoths were harmed in the making of the product. Instead of dead meat, an Australian startup called Vow produced the DNA meatball.
First, the team identified the DNA sequence for mammoth myoglobin, a protein that provides a meaty taste. To fill in some gaps in the series, they added genetic data from the African elephant – the pachyderms closest living relative. Using a low-current and high-voltage charge, they then inserted the gene into sheep stem cells. Finally, they multiplied and formed the cells into a paste.
It certainly looks good, but has it passed the taste test? It seems like an essential question, but it is unfortunately one that remains unanswered. Much to the disappointment of the daring eaters, the meatball is not yet ready for human consumption.
That anticlimactic outcome led to accusations that the entire endeavor was a publicity stunt. But the project team insists their experiment serves an important purpose: to demonstrate the potential of cultured meat to transform the food industry. They note that food production creates abundant greenhouse gases And loss of biodiversity. Cultured meat, they argue, offers a sustainable alternative.
“Our goal is to start a conversation about how we eat and what the future alternatives might look and taste like,” says Bas Korsten, a marketing manager who initiated the project. “Cultured meat is meat, but not as we know it. It’s the future.”
The meatball was created as a launching pad for the technology – and for Vow. With apparent justification, the company now claims it is rewriting the rules of food. But a rival claims it’s also rewriting the rules of decency.
While Vow was praised in the Netherlands, a very different reaction arose the border.
In Belgium, a scale-up called Paleo was considering legal action. The company was outraged by claims that Vow had exhibited a giant protein for the first time.
Paleo states that it ddeveloped the myoglobin technology two years earlier. The company had also filed patent applications at the time, which Paleo says have been publicly available to competitors for nearly a year.
Paleo contacted Vow before the event in the Netherlands. According to the Belgian scale-up Vow’s legal team argued that the giant meatball “wasn’t food” and rejected Paleo’s claims.
“When we heard about the event, we were surprised,” said Hermes Sanctorum, CEO of Paleo. “We sent out a press release nine months ago to announce that we have developed exactly the same thing mammoth protein (myoglobin), based on our fundamental research and innovation.
“By Vow to claim that no one has tasted mammoth myoglobin, this is simply not true. We developed the mammoth myoglobin and we tasted it in our lab.”
Vow has rejected the allegations.
“The technology and innovation involved in Vow’s creation and presentation of the ‘mammoth meatball’ owes nothing to any technology or alleged invention by Paleo,” the company said in a statement.
“The ‘Mammoth Meatball’ was conceived, developed and created entirely through the hard work and ingenuity of Vow’s own scientists (and collaborators) and using a combination of publicly available genetic data and Vow’s proprietary manufacturing processes.”
Paleo expressed some satisfaction with the response. The company said Vow had confirmed that it had not, in fact, exhibited mammoth myoglobin for the first time. Nevertheless, Paleo believes that Vow has crossed a red line, but the patents could prove difficult to enforce.
According to vow, it is only accused adopting the idea of making something with giant myoglobin. Vow argues that Paleo has no basis for claiming that idea as its own.
Moreover, the startup notices that an examiner at the European Patent Office deemed Paleo’s patent application was probably invalid. The Australian company described the application as an “attempted land grab of outrageous proportions”.
“Patent rights exist to protect innovation and can (when granted and valid) protect truly new, innovative and proprietary ideas; but Paleo has no such patent rights,” Vow said in his statement. “Paleo has no issued patent related to mammoth myoglobin and therefore has no legitimate claim.”
Vow also criticized the pending filing. If granted, the startup warned that the patent would prevent companies from using myoglobin from a wide variety of animals — including pigs, sheep, cows, chickens, tuna and, of course, mammoths — as a meat substitute or food ingredient.
The feud will continue for now. Regardless of the outcome, the dispute has exposed the complexities of patenting food innovations.