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Food firm resurrects DNA from extinct creature to create woolly mammoth meatball

March 31, 2023
Food & Drink

A cultured meatball containing the extinct mammoth’s myoglobin protein demonstrates the potential power of cell-based meat and was specially developed “to make consumers think about where their food comes from,” according to the chief scientists behind the prehistoric project.

FoodIngredientsFirst speaks with one of the people behind this novel cell-based food experiment, James Ryall, chief scientific officer at Vow, an Australian-based firm working in the cultured meat realm.

Whereas other lab-grown products are being approved in Singapore and the US and commercialization of more inches forward, Vow is coming at this from a novel perspective – leveraging the flesh of the extinct mammoth that walked the Earth 4,000 years ago.

Meatball is a “product concept”
Ryall tells us how Vow aims to “mix and match cells” from unconventional species to create new kinds of meat.

But there is no way it can be tasted or tested. Instead, the mammoth meatballs are on show at the Nemo Science museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to demonstrate the capabilities of cultivated meat and the plethora of novel this food tech could unleash.

“The mammoth meatball is a product concept. We don’t have any plans to commercialize mammoth meat, at least at this stage. But, one key aspect of the mammoth meatball is that it contains the myoglobin protein of the mammoth. Myoglobin is believed to contribute to meat’s color, flavor, and aroma,” says Ryall.

“Cells that are easy to grow can come from any species. The point of difference for Vow is that we believe it is unlikely that the best cells for this new technology will come from the four species we mostly eat today – cow, pig, sheep and chicken,” he adds.

Inventing meat
Ryall details that “the primary purpose behind the mammoth meatball project was to encourage people to think about where their food currently comes from and where it might come from in the future.”

First, the company identified the mammoth gene myoglobin – a protein-binding iron and oxygen found in almost all mammals’ skeletal and muscle tissue – which gives meat the expected taste.

Then it used publicly available data to identify the DNA sequence in mammoths and filled in any gaps in the DNA sequence of this mammoth myoglobin gene by using the genome of the African Elephant, as it is the mammoth’s closest living relative.

Vow then inserted the mammoth myoglobin gene into the cells using a very low current and high voltage charge and continued to grow and multiply these cells.

Pushing the boundaries of technology
Ryall underscores that the global population is expected to reach ten billion within 20 years. “We need to find new ways of producing high-quality animal protein, one of which is cultured meat. Our first product to be released in Singapore within the next few months is made of Japanese quail.”

Vow has begun the regulatory process with Food Standards Australian New Zealand (FSANZ) to get the green light for Morsel, its Japanese quail.

The company has to wait for approval, but it’s hoping to launch the line in restaurants by 2024.

Unknown taste
Scientists hesitate to try the meat as the protein from mammoths has not been seen for thousands of years and the flavors are yet unknown.

They argue that we have no idea how the human immune system would react if consumed, and stress that they advise against eating extinct animals, such as the recently discovered baby mammoth frozen in an ice block for 30,000 years found in Canada last year.

“There are another 5,000 mammals and 15,000 avian species to choose from. In terms of mixing and matching, we see cells as ingredients, so you can mix muscle cells with fat cells and fibroblast cells to get the desired nutritional, flavor and texture profiles,” Ryall continues.

“Cultured meat opens up a new world of possibilities for how we think about meat. We believe it is better to innovate and produce new products rather than trying to replicate existing products,” he adds.

Resource efficient
To avoid slaughtering animals and destroying wildlife, Vow says that it aims to phase out the industrial mass production of meat, which plays a major role in emissions and uses many environmental resources.

Lab-grown meat is resource-friendly as it is based on cells; therefore, less input is needed compared to conventional farming and livestock.

The company further details that the mammoth was chosen because it’s a symbol of diversity loss and climate change. The novel creation pushes the boundaries of what meat can be and what is possible in future food.

Significant developments in the cultivated meat space have recently been promising to drive scalability, which is considered one of the biggest roadblocks holding back mass production and commercialization of cell-based meat.

“To encourage change on a large scale, you need to provide consumers with something better than the incumbent. Something that they will selfishly choose because it is fundamentally a better product and, who knows, maybe that will include meat from extinct species,” Ryall concludes.

Meanwhile, Italy is proposing banning cell-based foods to protect its culinary heritage. The draft bill was approved by the Italian government and submitted to parliament for a future vote earlier this week.

By Beatrice Wihlander


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