Australian food startup Vow has set out to create a meatball made from cultured meatusing DNA from the 4,000-year-old extinct woolly mammoth, and with potential benefits for the environment.
While dozens of companies are working on replacements for traditional meat, such as chicken, pork and beef, Australian company Vow aims to mix and match cells from unconventional species to create new types of meat without sacrificing animals; even those extinct thousands of years ago, such as the extinct woolly mammoth 4,000 years ago. In this way, the company seeks to highlight the possibility of contemplating large-scale livestock production away from practices that involve the destruction of wildlife and aggravate the climate crisis.
Marketing this eco-friendly farmed meat
This process of growing meat, according to Vow, already targets more than 50 species of animals; alpacas, buffaloes, crocodiles, kangaroos, peacocks, among other different types of species. Thus, the first cultured meat to be sold to diners will be Japanese quail, which is expected to hit Singapore restaurants this year. “We have a behavior change problem when it comes to meat consumption”, said George Peppou, chief executive of Vow. “The goal is to switch a few billion carnivores from eating [conventional] animal proteins to eating things that can be produced on electricity-based systems”.
For his part, Tim Noakesmith, who co-founded Vow with Peppou, said: “We chose the woolly mammoth because it is a symbol of diversity loss and a symbol of climate change“. This creature is believed to have become extinct due to hunting by humans and global warming after the last ice age.
Large-scale production of meat, particularly beef, causes great damage to the environment, and many studies find that there must be a big reduction in meat consumption in wealthy nations to end the climate crisis. Farmed meat uses much less land and water than cattle and produces no methane emissions, Vow notes, adding that all energy comes from renewable sources.
How is the process of creating this type of meat?
In time, Vow worked with Professor Ernst Wolvetang, from the Australian Institute of Bioengineering at the University of Queenslad, to create the mammoth protein. His team took the DNA sequence of mammoth myoglobin, a key muscle protein in flavoring meat, and supplemented it with elephant DNA. This combination was put into sheep’s myoblast (cell that gives rise to muscle cells) stem cells, which were replicated to grow into the 20 billion cells that the company later used to grow mammoth meat.
No one has tried the mammoth meatball yet. “We have not seen this protein for thousands of years”,Wolvetang said. “So we have no idea how our immune systems would react when we eat it. But if we did it again, we could certainly do it in a way that would make it more akin to our organisms”.
Wolvetang said he could understand people being initially wary of the meat: “It is a bit strange and new, it is always like that at first. But from an environmental and ethical standpoint, I personally think [cultured meat] makes a lot of sense”, he noted.
While plant-based meat alternatives are common today, cultured meat replicates the taste of conventional meat. In fact, as far back as 2018, another company used the DNA of an extinct animal to create gummy bears made from the jelly of a mastodon, another elephant-like species.
A similar case is that of the cultured chicken meat of the Good Meat company, which is currently only sold in Singapore. However, a couple more companies are still advancing their approval process in the United States.