A meatball made of lab-grown mammoth meat was unveiled at a science museum in the Netherlands on Tuesday.
Vow, the startup that made the meatball, created it using genetic information from the long-extinct mammoth, company researchers said in Tuesday’s media event. Some holes in the genetic sequence were filled in using data from the mammoth’s closest living relative: the African elephant.
The process for making cultured meat usually starts with cells taken from a living animal. Those cells are immersed in nutrients and grown into meat in a lab.
In this case, the mammoth genes were inserted into a sheep cell, Vow chief scientific officer James Ryall said at the unveiling. The mammoth gene was then overexpressed so it would be more prevalent in the final product than the sheep.
No one has tasted the mammoth meat, Vow founder Tim Noakesmith disclosed.
“And it doesn’t mean that you can’t eat it, but because this protein is literally 4,000 years old, we haven’t seen it for a very, very long time,” Noakesmith said. “It means that we would want to put it through seriously rigorous testing, like we do with any product that we want to bring to market. And for this purpose we wanted to present it to the world faster and not necessarily bring it immediately to market.”
Even though Vow isn’t vouching for the safety of mammoth meat, the startup chose meat from an extinct animal to get people talking, Noakesmith said.
“Because with new technology it means that the food that we can have doesn’t have to replicate what we’ve had before,” Noakesmith said. “It can be more exciting, it can have better flavor profiles, better nutrition profiles. And so we wanted to create something that was totally different from anything you can get now.”
Vow is one of a number of companies making lab-grown meat. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration last week cleared “cultured chicken cell material” made by the GOOD Meat company as safe for human consumption. In November, it gave approval for lab-grown chicken made by Upside Foods. Advocates for lab-grown meat say it can help cut back on methane emissions and combat climate change.
Cultured meat has been in development for years. The world’s first lab-grown burger was eaten in 2013. The first cell-based chicken nuggets were approved in Singapore in December 2020.
In a 2022 report on the future of food safety, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations noted there’s an increase in consumer demand for animal-based food products.
“The intensification of animal production may contrast with sustainability objectives, resulting in trade-offs in various environmental aspects, food security and animal welfare,” according to the report. “New technology presents a potential alternative: the production of land and aquatic animals without requiring large-scale farming and slaughtering.”
More than 75 companies around the world are working on developing lab-grown meat products as of November 2021, according to the FAO. Singapore is the only country that has approved the sale of cultured meat.
In the U.S., companies that have been cleared by the FDA need approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture before they can sell their products. The USDA has not shared any kind of timetable on when lab-grown meat products might be cleared for sale in the U.S.
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