Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
On March 29, 2023, the crowds of the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam vibrated with excitement as the first-ever meatball comprised of woolly mammoth meat — grown in a lab using mammoth DNA from the long-extinct species — sat on display.
The mammoth meat was created from myoglobin proteins made by Vow, an Australian biotechnology company. Though not intended for human consumption, the meatball still sparked a dialogue about eating extinct cultured meat.
“Cultured meat products [are] expected to hit restaurants in the U.S. later this year,” explained Vow’s chief scientific officer, James Ryall. “We needed to bring cultured meat into the spotlight to get consumers familiar with this new [kind of] product. The mammoth meatball news story was viewed by hundreds of millions of people, with the most common response being ‘Would you eat it?’”
Ryall and the Vow’s team created the meatball out of mammoth meat as a broader statement about climate change.
“We chose the woolly mammoth because it’s a symbol of diversity loss and a symbol of climate change,” stated Tim Noakesmith, Vow Foods co-founder, in a recent article in The Guardian.
Read More: Scientists Might Bring Back These Extinct Animals
Sixty percent of the greenhouse gases caused by food production are due to animal-based foods, particularly livestock. That’s why many companies and organizations, Vow included, are working to find greener ways to produce protein since experts project that meat production will increase by a whopping 70 percent by 2050.
Cultured meat is synthetically grown and engineered to have a specific taste, color and nutrient composition.
“Cultivating meat from cells can satisfy the world’s growing demand for meat at a fraction of the environmental cost of farming it from animals,” says Seren Kell, senior science and technology manager at the Good Food Institute Europe. “A recent paper [found] this food could cut the climate impact of meat by up to 92 percent, reduce air pollution by up to 94 percent and use up to 90 percent less land.”
While synthetically grown meat has already become a recognized product by the general public, such as GOOD Meat, meat grown from extinct animals could attract a new type of cultured meat eater. People like Ryall are excited to see if there is a demand for these exotic meats.
“What the mammoth meatball demonstrated was that there is a significant appetite (excuse the pun) for novel and unique meats,” says Ryall. “Given the response, it is something we will certainly consider in the future.” Vow even tried to synthesize nuggets from the extinct dodo bird, but lacked enough DNA to accomplish the task.
Vow Foods isn’t the only company looking to feed this niche demand. In 2018, the biotechnology company Geltor released collagen gummies that contained synthetic mastodon proteins, an ancient relative of the modern elephant.
“We purposely selected an extinct species to show we could replicate the mastodon collagen protein with no living available source,” says Geltor co-founder Nick Ouzounoy. “The feedback was very positive, and the novelty was clearly a showstopper. Many visitors wanted to purchase the Mastodon gummies. Overall, people saw the potential of the technology, which was the reason for creating the gummies.”
Though Geltor and Vow Foods were focused on the novelty of their meat products, both companies are also excited to see a shift in consumers’ eating habits towards a more environmentally-conscious diet.
Read More: What’s With the Aversion to Lab-Grown Meat?
“With the global population expected to hit over 10 billion people within the next 20 years, we need to develop new sources of high-quality animal protein,” Ryall says. “We see cultured meat as a natural complement to traditional animal agriculture.”
While these previously-extinct meats have yet to become a bigger fad, scholars looking ahead understand that eating these types of foods opens up a new type of ethical debate. Often, these conversations focus on “de-extinction,” or the process of generating an organism that either resembles or is an extinct hybrid species.
“The biggest misconception people have is that it is actually possible to bring back an identical version of a species that is extinct,” says Beth Shapiro, lead palaeogeneticist at Colossal Biosciences, a biotechnology company working on de-extinction projects for conservation purposes. “Extinction is forever. Once a species is gone, it is gone. The de-extinction projects that are underway are all aiming to resurrect extinct traits by editing them into living species; to create an Arctic-adapted elephant, for example, that can live in habitats where mammoths once lived.”
Other misconceptions about the de-extinction process detract from its goals as a conservation tactic.
“I think many people see de-extinction as a less worthy goal than conservation. It might seem wasteful to spend our resources on bringing back species instead of preventing further extinctions,” says Julian Koplin, a bioethicist at Monash University. “But I think this isn’t right. In both cases, we end up with greater biodiversity, with threatened or extinct animals able to continue to fill their ecological niche. And in both cases, we humans end up able to admire these animals.”
Other experts like Ben Lamm, co-founder and CEO of Colossal Biosciences, agree. “Some less-informed critics do not recognize the need for radically new technologies that de-extinction provides and the positive impact they have on conservation and species preservation,” Lamm adds.
Even though the debate around de-extinction continues, Vow continues pondering what de-extinct meats could look like on a dinner plate.
“When you remove the need for the animal, it opens up so many new possibilities,” Ryall says. “In terms of extinct species, we are really only limited by the availability of genetic information. […] It is exciting to think about a future where we can eat dinosaurs.”
For other experts, the woolly mammoth meatball tells an all-too-common story, one based on a human-centric existence.
“There is certainly an irony here with animals like the woolly mammoth, whose extinction was caused at least partially by human over-hunting,” says Hallam Stevens, a science and technology historian at James Cook University. “And now the first thing we want to do when we bring them back to life is to eat them again.”
Read More: Will Woolly Mammoths Ever Make a Comeback?