A bitter feud has erupted over who first resurrected the woolly mammoth – as a meatball.
The extinct delicacy was unveiled last week at the Science Museum Nemo in the Netherlands. Of course, no mammoths were harmed in the making of this product – and no other animals either. Instead of dead meat, an Australian startup called Vow made the meatballs out of DNA.
First, the team identified the DNA sequence for mammoth myoglobin, a protein that produces a meaty taste. To fill in some gaps in the sequence, they added genetic data from the African elephant – the pachyderm closest living relatives. Using a low-current, high-voltage charge, they then inserted the gene into stem cells from a sheep. Eventually they multiplied and formed the cells into a paste.
The mammoth meatball was made from extinct animal DNA. Photo credit: Aico Lind
It certainly looks good, but did it pass the taste test? It seems like an essential question, but it is unfortunately one that remains unanswered. To the disappointment of brave diners, the meatball is unfit for human consumption.
This anticlimactic result sparked accusations that the whole endeavor was a publicity stunt. However, the project team insists that their experiment serves an important purpose: to demonstrate the potential of cultured meat to transform the food industry. They note that food production generates copious amounts of greenhouse gases and a loss of biodiversity. Cultured meat, they argue, offers a sustainable alternative.
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“Our goal is to start a conversation about how we eat and what the alternatives of the future might look like and taste like,” said Bas Korsten, a marketing director who initiated the project. “Cultivated meat is meat, but not as we know it. It’s the future.”
The meatball was created as a launch pad for technology – and for vow. Apparently rightly so, the company is now claiming to be rewriting the food rules. But a rival claims he’s also rewriting the rules of decency.
A pack of meat you can’t eat. Photo credit: Aico Lind
When Vow was praised in the Netherlands, a very different reaction was brewing the border.
In Belgium, a scale-up called Paleo was considering legal action. The company was furious over claims that Vow presented a mammoth protein for the first time.
Paleo argues that it ddeveloped the myoglobin technology two years earlier. The company had also filed patent applications at the time, which Paleo says have been publicly available to competitors for nearly a year.
Paleo contacted Vow ahead of the event in The Netherlands. According to the Belgian scaleup, Vow’s legal team argued that the mammoth meatball was “not food” and dismissed Paleo’s claims.
“When we found out about the event, we were surprised,” said Hermes Sanctorum, CEO of Paleo. “We sent out a press release nine months ago to announce that we have developed the exact same thing Mammoth Protein (Myoglobin), based on our fundamental research and innovation.
“When Vow claims no one tasted Mammoth Myoglobin, that’s just not true. We developed them Mammoth Myoglobin and we tried it in our lab.”
Paleo co-founders Hermes Sanctorum (left) and Andy de Jong had theirs Patent application published by the World Intellectual Property Organization. Photo credit: Paleo
Vow has denied the allegations.
“The technology and innovation involved in Vow’s creation and presentation of the ‘Mammoth Meatball’ owes nothing to any technology or purported invention of Paleo,” the company said in a statement.
“The ‘Mammoth Meatball’ was conceived, developed and manufactured entirely through the hard work and ingenuity of Vow’s own scientists (and collaborators) and using a combination of publicly available genetic data and Vow’s own proprietary production processes.”
Paleo was satisfied with the answer. The company said Vow confirmed it was indeed not presenting mammoth myoglobin for the first time. Nonetheless, Paleo believes Vow has crossed a red line — but the patents could prove difficult to enforce.
Paleo develops various animal heme proteins through precision fermentation. Photo credit: Paleo
loud vows, he was only blamed for it the idea of creating something with mammoth myoglobin. Vow argues that Paleo has no basis to claim this idea as its own.
In addition, the startup notes that an examiner at the European Patent Office considered Paleo’s patent application to be likely invalid. The Australian company described the application as an “attempted land grab of outrageous proportions”.
“Patent rights exist to protect innovation and (if granted and valid) can protect truly new, innovative and proprietary ideas; but Paleo has no such patent rights,” Vow said in his statement. “Paleo has no issued patent related to mammoth myoglobin and therefore has no legitimate claim.”
Vow also criticized the pending application. If granted, the startup warned that the patent would prevent companies from using myoglobin from a variety of animals — including pig, sheep, cow, chicken, tuna, and of course mammoth — as a meat substitute or food ingredient.
The feud will continue for now. Regardless of the outcome of the dispute has revealed the complexity of patenting food innovations.
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