By: Madeline Butler ’24
Vow, an Australian cultured meat startup, created what it calls a mammoth meatball in a lab. While it was not made for human consumption, the goal of the stunt was to draw attention to the possibilities of lab cultured meat.
The meatball’s journey began as woolly mammoth remains, with fur and tissue still intact, which are regularly found in Artic permafrost. Their discovery has allowed scientists to sequence the mammoth genome. With the genome, it is possible to grow an approximation of mammoth meat in a lab.
“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,” according to CNN.
They scientists in gaps in the mammoth myoglobin DNA sequence using information from the genome of an African elephant. They then inserted the synthesized gene into a sheep muscle cell, which was then cultured, or grown, in a lab.
The team of scientists eventually produced about 400 grams of mammoth meat, but they did not taste any of it.
“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,” said James Ryall, Vow’s chief scientific officer.
The concern over potential allergens prevented the mammoth meatball from being available to the public, but it still worked as an effective publicity stunt for lab cultured meat.
Lab cultured meat, sometimes called lab-grown, clean or cultivated meat, is grown in a lab from a few animal cells. It is still real meat, but it doesn’t require animals to be slaughtered the way traditional meat does. This makes for a more ecologically friendly and humane meat industry.
“We wanted to get people excited about the future of food being different to potentially what we had before,” Tim Noakesmith, a co-founder of Vow. “We thought the mammoth would be a conversation starter. What we wanted to do was see if we could create something that was a symbol of a more exciting future that’s not only better for us, but also better for the planet.”
Today, agriculture uses billions of acres of land, and a lot of this land is used for raising livestock. 57% of all food product emissions come from the use of cows, pigs and other animals for food.
“Cultured meat, or grown meat from animal cells, requires less space and less water than raising livestock does. Because it is created in a lab, cultured meat may also be designed to meet taste and nutritional preferences,” according to a statement from Vow.
The transportation needed for agriculture emits large levels of both methane and carbon dioxide. Clearing land and forests to make more space for livestock also increases carbon dioxide emissions.
“The presumption is we’re going to do better because of the sustainability element here: to reduce the land footprint, reduce the water needs and reduce some of the waste streams that go out from feedlots,” said David Kaplan, a professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts University.
At this time Singapore and the United States are the only countries to have approved cell-based meat for consumer consumption. The industry is fairly new, so cultivated meat is still a few years away from being commercially available in the United States.
Perhaps one day all of our meatballs will be created in a lab, not just ones made of mammoth meat.