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Woolly mammoth remains, with fur and tissue still in tact, are regularly found entombed in Arctic permafrost. Their discovery has allowed scientists to sequence the mammoth genome and learn intriguing details about the lives of these extinct Ice Age giants.
Now, some of that information is being used to grow an approximation of mammoth meat in a lab.
Vow, an Australian cultured meat startup, has made what it describes as a mammoth meatball. The project’s goal, according to the company, is to draw attention to the potential of cultured meat to make eating habits more planet friendly. On Tuesday, the meatball will join the collection at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave — a museum of science and medicine in the Netherlands.
“We need to start rethinking how we get our food. My biggest hope for this project is … that a lot more people across the world begin to hear about cultured meat,” said James Ryall, Vow’s chief scientific officer.
Creating ‘mammoth meat’
A wonderfully wacky publicity stunt, the meatballs aren’t intended for human consumption. Even calling the creation mammoth meat is a bit of a stretch. It’s more like lab-made lamb mingled with a tiny amount of mammoth DNA.
Scientists working on the project didn’t have access to a frozen stash of mammoth tissue on which to base their efforts. Instead, they focused on a protein present in mammals called myoglobin that gives meat its texture, color and taste, identifying the DNA sequence for the mammoth version in a publicly available genome database.
They filled in gaps in the mammoth myoglobin DNA sequence using information from the genome of an African elephant. The scientists inserted the synthesized gene into a sheep muscle cell, which was then cultured, or grown, in a lab.
The team was eventually able to produce about 400 grams of mammoth meat.
“From a genomic point of view, it’s only one gene amongst all the other sheep genes that is mammoth,” said Ernst Wolvetang, a professor and senior group leader at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland, who was part of the project. “It’s one gene out of 25,000.”
Ryall said the mammoth myoglobin did change the physical appearance of the sheep muscle cells. Though our Stone Age ancestors hunted and presumably feasted on mammoth, Ryall and Wolvetang both said they had not tasted the meatballs.
“Normally, we would taste our products and play around with them. But we were hesitant to immediately try and taste because we’re talking about a protein that hasn’t existed for 5,000 years. I’ve got no idea what the potential allergenicity might be of this particular protein,” Ryall said.
“That’s one of the reasons why we’re not offering this as a product. It’s not going to go up for sale, because we’ve got no idea about the safety profile of this particular product,” he added.
Cultured vs. the real thing
Advocates hope cultured meat will reduce the need to slaughter animals for food and help fight the climate crisis. The food system is responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, most of which result from animal agriculture.
Vow hopes to soon get regulatory approval in Singapore, the first country to approve cultured meat, to sell lab-made quail meat it has developed. In the United States, the FDA has said that lab-grown chicken is OK for human consumption.
The carcasses of mammoths, which went extinct about 5,000 years ago, have been found so well preserved in permafrost, they still had blood in their veins.
Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genomics at Stockholm University’s Centre for Paleogenetics who sequenced the world’s oldest mammoth DNA, knows what mammoth meat actually tastes like.
During a field trip to the Yana River in Siberia in 2012, Dalén said he tried a small piece of frozen meat taken from partial carcass of a baby mammoth. While he said couldn’t see great scientific value in the meatball project, were they to ever go on sale, Dalén said he would definitely taste one.
“Without doubt I would love to try this!” he said. “It cannot possibly taste worse than real mammoth meat.”