Truth, as the saying goes, is often stranger than fiction. The very notion of resurrecting the long-extinct woolly mammoth was the stuff of fantasy not that 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 meshing it with that of a modern-day elephant.
But while such “de-extinction” projects may or may not ultimately succeed, one company is already laying claim to having produced the first meat product made from mammoth DNA.
Vow, an Australian cultivated food company that creates meat in a laboratory setting from animal cells, says that it has used advanced molecular engineering to resurrect the woolly mammoth in meatball form, by combining original mammoth DNA with fragments of an African elephant’s DNA.
James Ryall, Vow’s chief science officer, said that the company first identified the mammoth myoglobin, a protein that is key to giving meat its color and taste, and 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],” Ryall said in a video announcing the mammoth meatball. “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 occur in a mammoth thousands of years ago. And the amazing thing about this is that not a single animal needed to die to produce the mammoth meatball.”
There’s little question that cultivated meat is coming, evidenced by the countless companies raising vast swathes of venture capital funding to produce meat and fish in a lab from animal cells, as well as the fact that companies are now starting to receiving the blessings of regulators such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But while pork sausages and seafood make sense insofar as they are food that people are familiar with, Vow — which closed a $49.2 million round of funding just a few months ago — is clearly upping the ante with its foray into the world of extinct animals.
It’s worth acknowledging that there is a sizeable element of marketing magicianship to this announcement. The very concept was devised by communications agency and WPP-subsidiary Wunderman Thompson, which tells us something about the intent here — this is very much a promotional campaign for Vow. But at the same time, it’s also a promotional campaign for cultured meat in general, and the role it could play in creating a sustainable protein source that doesn’t involve killing animals. By some estimations, around 60% of greenhouse gas emissions from food production emanate from animal-based foods, double that of plant-based equivalents.
“The goal behind creating the mammoth meatball was really about starting that discussion around food, and what that decision to eat meat really means to the world at large, by bringing an extinct protein back to life,” Ryall said.
This isn’t the first time a scientists have created edibles from extinct animals. Back in 2018, a VC-backed Silicon Valley startup called Geltor made gummies using protein from a mastodon, another distant relative of elephants. However, in this latest instance, it’s believed that nobody has actually tasted one of the mammoth meatballs. Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Professor Ernst Wolvetang, from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering at the University of Queensland which worked with Vow in this project, suggested that it’s probably not safe to try the meatball just now, even if regulators permitted it.
“We haven’t seen this protein for thousands of years,” Wolvetang said. “So we have no idea how our immune system would react when we eat it. But if we did it again, we could certainly do it in a way that would make it more palatable to regulatory bodies.”
The mammoth meatball is set to be officially unveiled at Nemo Science Museum in the Netherlands today.