When Science Gives You Mammoth Meat, Make Meatballs

The extinct protein was revived to show the potential of lab-grown meat.

Wooly Mammoth meat

Courtesy of Vow

The wooly mammoth is having a bit of a moment, which is extra-impressive, considering that it’s been extinct for several thousand years. In late 2021, a biotech startup called Colossal announced its ambitious plan to try to resurrect the massive mammals. And just this week, an Australian cultivated meat company debuted an oversized mammoth meatball at a museum in the Netherlands.

George Peppou, the founder of Vow, said that it was "no small undertaking" to try to create an Ice Age-era appetizer. In a blog post, he explained that the process started by identifying the gene sequence involved in a mammoth's myoglobin, which is a protein found in muscle cells.

"When it comes to meat, myoglobin is responsible for the aroma, the color and the taste", James Ryall, Vow's Chief Scientific Officer, told Reuters. (He compared the process to "the movie Jurassic Park," and that film definitely wasn't a cautionary tale about messing around with nature, right?)

To fill in the "number of gaps" in that genetic code, they swapped in the gene sequences from the African elephant. That "mammoth" gene was then implanted in stem cells from sheep, and the meatball was grown from there. Interestingly, Professor Ernst Wolvetang from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland, told The Guardian that Vow's original plan was to create lab-grown dodo meat, but that long-gone bird's genetic information isn't available.

Vow isn’t just interested in creating prehistoric snacks: this whole mammoth thing just serves to highlight the possibilities of cultured meat. The company has already looked into producing "meat" from over 50 different species. It has already sought regulatory approval in Australia to begin producing cultivated quail products. Vegconomist reports that it plans to launch Morsel, its line of products based on a rare Japanese quail, in Singapore later this year with availability in Australia to potentially follow in 2024.

Wooly Mammoth meat

Courtesy of Vow

Until then, there's the meatball. Before you ask, no, nobody knows how it tastes. "We haven’t seen this protein for thousands of years," Professor Wolvetang said. "So we have no idea how our immune system would react when we eat it." (Cue Homer Simpson saying, "Mmm... forbidden meatball.")

But the meatball has been baked, and while it was being hand-finished with a blowtorch, the smell was described as being close to cooked crocodile meat. "[It's] super fascinating to think that adding the protein from an animal that went extinct 4,000 years ago gave it a totally unique and new aroma, something we haven’t smelled as a population for a very long time," Vow co-founder Tim Noakesmith told the Associated Press.

The Mammoth Meatball has been given to the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam. The museum does have a restaurant, in case all this talk about eating extinct animals makes you hungry.

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