Speed Reads

'extinct protein'

Yes, a company made a meatball from lab-grown woolly mammoth meat. No, you can't try it.

An Australian company that specializes in lab-grown meat announced Tuesday that it has created a large meatball made from woolly mammoth, an animal that has been extinct for thousands of years. The company, Vow, unveiled its mammoth meatball at the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam. 

Vow said it created its ground mammoth meat by isolating a meat-producing myoglobin gene from publicly available mammoth DNA, filling in the blanks with African elephant genetic data, inserting the reconstructed mammoth gene into a sheep cell, then growing enough of those cells to create a tetherball-sized meatball. The company explained its process and rationale in a glossy promotional video.

The mammoth meatball was baked and flame-broiled by a blowtorch-wielding chef, and it reportedly smelled good, like cooked crocodile meat. But nobody taste-tested it, and you won't be able to sample Vow's mammoth meat either. The only one they made is now glazed for preservation in a museum, and Vow said its publicly stunt was designed to highlight the need for more sustainable meat in the face of climate-related extinction, not market mammoth burgers. Vow's original plan, to create dodo meat, was stymied by the lack of viable DNA, Australian bioengineering professor Ernst Wolvetang told The Guardian.

Also, mammoth meat is "an extinct protein," Vow said, and nobody is sure it's safe to consume. "We have no idea how our immune system would react when we eat it," Wolvetang said. "But if we did it again, we could certainly do it in a way that would make it more palatable to regulatory bodies." Singapore is the only country that has approved lab-grown meat for human consumption — Vow is angling to sell cultivated Japanese quail there this year — though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears close to green-lighting lab-grown chicken. 

Most of the 100-plus companies working on bringing cultivated meat to market are focusing on chicken, pork, and beef, but Vow is trying to improve on nature, experimenting with kangaroo, peacock, alpaca, crocodile, and other more exotic meats to create unique carniverous offerings. Some proponents of lab-grown meat welcomed Vow's stunt as a conversation-starter but suggested that focusing on perfecting cultivated varieties of meat people actually eat would do more to build up the industry and save the planet.

"It's probably a harmless gimmick, but I'm not a fan of advertising this mostly sheep meatball as genuine mammoth, and I'm skeptical that the stunt is going to sell anyone on cultivated meat," Isaac Schultz groused at Gizmodo. And "if the stunt really does supercharge the cultivated meat market, I guess that's a good thing — but I suspect all it will do is get folks pondering what other extinct and rare creatures should be tasted." 

Anyone uncomfortable with meat cultivated in a lab, be it a beef burger or mammoth meatball, has other options in lab-food experimentation. CBS News, for example, highlighted as an edible 3D-printed cheesecake on Tuesday, to mixed reviews.