In a sense, the extinct woolly mammoth has returned—as a meatball. On Tuesday, an Australian cultured meat start-up revealed a sphere of lab-grown meat, produced with a DNA sequence from the elephant-like mammal.
But you won’t find this product in grocery stores; the creation is not meant to be eaten, at least for now. Instead, the “mammoth meatball” aims to highlight the environmental impacts of standard agricultural practices and present cultured meat as a viable option for food production down the line.
“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, the company behind the meatball, tells Mike Corder of the Associated Press (AP). “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 the greenhouse gases released from food production make up about 30 percent of global emissions. 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.
Seren Kell, science and technology manager at the nonprofit Good Food Institute, which promotes alternatives to animal products, tells the Guardian’s Damian Carrington she hopes the mammoth meatball “will open up new conversations about cultivated meat’s extraordinary potential to produce more sustainable food.”
Woolly mammoths roamed across Eurasia and North America from 700,000 years ago to 4,000 years ago, wrote Riley Black for Smithsonian magazine in 2021. Following the last Ice Age, the species was driven to extinction, perhaps from a combination of human hunting and changes in the climate. In 2015, scientists managed to sequence the animal’s complete genome. This knowledge made the mammoth meatball possible.
The spherical creation is between the size of a softball and a volleyball. It was made by using the DNA sequence for mammoth myoglobin, a protein that gives meat its color and flavor, as well as genetic data from African elephants, the mammoth’s closest living relative, to fill in any gaps. Then, scientists inserted the sequence into cells from a sheep and coaxed them to multiply into 20 billion cells that made up the final meatball.
Vow unveiled its version of mammoth meat at Nemo, a science museum in the Netherlands. As the start-up slow baked the meatball then blowtorched its outside, audience members said the product smelled good, comparing the scent to that of crocodile meat, per the AP.
Though this might make the mammoth meat seem appetizing, Vow’s meatball is not available for consumption. Scientists are not quite sure how modern human immune systems would react to the product.
“We’re talking about a protein that hasn’t existed for 5,000 years,” James Ryall, chief scientific officer for Vow, tells CNN’s Katie Hunt. “I’ve got no idea what the potential allergenicity might be of this particular protein.”
Vow’s food scientists are optimistic about the future of cell-based alternatives to meat products. Currently, cultured meat is only available in Singapore, but companies like Upside Foods and GOOD Meat have earned clearance for their lab-grown products from the United States Food and Drug Administration.