the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Kimi Weng ’24
The woolly mammoth, an extinct species of elephant, is known for its large size, fur, and imposing tusks. Woolly mammoths were about 3-3.7 meters tall and weighed about 5,500-7,300 kilograms with thick fur covering their skin. They thrived during the ice ages but slowly decreased in number due to climate change following the end of the last ice age. Woolly mammoths were largely extinct about 10,000 years ago and possibly last seen around 4,300 years ago.
You might be wondering, what do extinct woolly mammoths have to do with meatballs? These two terms might have never been associated together before, but now they are.
The Mammoth Meatball!
Last week, an Australian company Vow created a meatball made from woolly mammoths. That’s right, a meatball made with meat from an extinct species more than 4,000 years ago. But how did they create this mammoth meatball?
Here is the five-step recipe for how to make a mammoth meatball:
1). Identifying the right genes. Genes in every living organism carry information on how to “build” an organism, just like how recipes in a cookbook give instructions on how to make delicious food. A mammoth’s genes make proteins and “build” the mammoth together. The protein myoglobin, identified to be in the mammoth genome, would give the meatball the same traits and taste as a woolly mammoth. This mammoth myoglobin binds to iron and oxygen, giving red meat a meaty taste.
2). Finding the DNA sequence. DNA sequences are combinations of letters, A (adenine), T (thymine), C (cytosine), and G (guanine). Since these letters contain instructions on how to make proteins, knowing the DNA sequence is crucial in encoding the mammoth myoglobin protein. Going through hundreds of public mammoth DNA sequences, the DNA sequence for mammoth myoglobin was located and obtained.
3). Completing the DNA sequence. Due to the mammoth’s extinction, completing the DNA sequence is challenging. The gaps in the mammoth DNA sequence were luckily completed by using the genome of the African elephant, the closest living relative of the woolly mammoth.
4). Inserting the mammoth gene into the cell. The mammoth myoglobin was inserted into a short DNA sequence called a “vector”. The vector allows the direct insertion of genes into a target host genome. In this case, the mammoth myoglobin was inserted into the sheep genome. This was achieved by hitting the cell with a low current high voltage charge, allowing the vector (containing the mammoth DNA) to enter. Since the sheep’s myoglobin gene is vastly different from the mammoth’s, scientists could identify if the transfer was successful.
5). Multiplying these cells. Essential micronutrients, including sugars, salts, vitamins, and amino acids, were added to grow and multiply the mammoth cells, as well as to create a tasty meat profile. Those cells were then placed in climate-controlled cultivators that could mimic the mammoth’s natural way of forming muscle tissues. Over 20 billion cells were cultivated to produce enough meat to make the world’s first mammoth meatball.
Now we have a meatball that is between the size of a softball and a volleyball, but here is a more important question. WHY?
Even though there are many vegetarians nowadays, the majority of the world is still meat-eaters. The conventional consumption of meat could cause destruction of wildlife, climate crises, and damage to the environment, but Vow’s cultured meat could be a possible solution to this issue. This project aimed to demonstrate the potential of growing meat from cells without killing animals. According to George Peppou, CEO of Vow, “The goal is to transition a few billion meat-eaters away from eating [conventional] animal protein to eating things that can be produced in electrified systems.”
Vow has already investigated more than 50 species of animals, including alpacas, buffaloes, crocodiles, kangaroos, peacocks, and different types of fish, in their potential for cultivated meat. But they chose the extinct mammoth because it symbolizes diversity loss and climate change, corresponding to the consensus of their cause of extinction: hunting by humans and the warming of the world after the last ice age. These causes precisely describe the current situation of animals.
Plant-based alternatives to meat, as one of the solutions, are now commonly found in markets and restaurants, but cultured meat, meat that replicates the taste of conventional meat, is currently only sold to consumers in Singapore. The mammoth meatball is currently not edible (yes, I know, that’s sad) because scientists are unsure about the effect of a thousands-year-old protein on the human body and its immune system, and they are looking at more human-friendly alternatives.
In order to reduce the huge environmental damage of the mass production of meat and potentially end the climate crisis, there must be a great reduction in meat consumption in developed countries. The mass production and consumption of cultured meat could be a plausible solution. However, the regulation of cultured meat would take many years, and we might not be able to see “the meatball” on our table for five to 10 years.
To conclude, the intent of cultured meat is not to revive an extinct species, they are meant to address and potentially alleviate environmental issues and the climate crisis. If scientists tried to use this technology in an attempt to bring back the extinct species, we could be opening up another Pandora's box and resulting in the extinction of ourselves.