As It Happens

What a mammoth meatball could mean for the future of food sustainability

The founder of the cultured meat company behind the mammoth meatball explains the science behind the creation — which contains DNA from the long-extinct wooly creature — and what he hopes it will add to the conversation about the future of food.

Company behind the lab-grown creation hopes it will spark conversation

A smiling man in a white top sit behind a glass dome-covered ginat meatball
Tim Noakesmith, founder of Australian cultured meat company Vow, shows a meatball made from flesh cultivated using the DNA of an extinct woolly mammoth at NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam, March 28, 2023. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters)

Scientists in Australia unveiled a new creation this week: a meatball made with lab-grown cultured meat using DNA from the long-extinct woolly mammoth. 

The mammoth meatball is the creation of Australia's Vow Cultured Meats, which creates meat from animal cells.

The company's founder, Tim Noakesmith, spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal from Amsterdam about how scientists produced the meatball — and why. 

Here's part of their conversation. 

April Fool's Day is coming up, so I need you to go on the record here. Are you guaranteeing that this mammoth meatball is not an early April Fool's Day prank?

You have my absolute word that this is real. This is a real innovation. I'm not going to turn around in a few days and tell you it was one big joke. 

Describe what it looks like and smells like. 

Well, it's a mammoth meatball, so it would be amiss of us to make it small. It looks like a meatball you'd expect from a mammoth. It's charred on the outside because to cook it, we needed to use a blowtorch on the outside after an oven-bake. 

And in terms of the aroma, it's super interesting. The mammoth protein that we ended up growing produced quite a unique aroma that was closer to things that we've tried like crocodile than it was to beef. 

It's a meaty aroma, but it's definitely a bit unique. 

A giant golden brown meatball
The meatball was made, not to be eaten, but to trigger a conversation about the future of food. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters)

Was this just to become a conversation starter? Are you worried that maybe it doesn't look appetizing to folks? 

I mean, it looks like a giant meatball, and I think unless you're really hungry, that might not look super appetizing. Perhaps for our ancestors 4,000 years ago when it went extinct, maybe this was a delectable looking meal.

But you're absolutely right. Rather than thinking about something that you can go and pick up at the supermarket on a Friday night, it's something that we really just wanted to trigger a conversation about — about the future of food and about how it can look better and different. 

We've had some conversations about lab grown meat, or cultured meat. But just give our listeners a sense of what exactly we're talking about here. 

Basically we're looking at a new way to make meat. So, a new way to feed cities and countries. And the way that we do that is we grow the cells of animals, in this case in big metal tanks instead of the animals themselves.

So we don't require large amounts of farmland or all of the kind of resources that go into that and the impact. Instead, we can do the same, but in a better way, in electrified facilities. 

A scientist in blue head covering and blue gloves, wearing a face mask, looking up into a clear container.
Scientists had the DNA language of the mammoth, but there were gaps that it filled in with the genome of the African elephant, which is a very close relative. (Wunderman Thompson)

How do you make mammoth DNA part of that process?  

In this instance, the mammoth is quite a good and intact genome. So it means that we have the DNA language of the mammoth.

But like anything that's that old, it has gaps in it. So what our team of scientists did is, it filled the gaps with the genome of the African elephant, which is a very close relative.

What we were able to do then is go into that DNA language and find the code responsible for a very specific protein. So in this instance, it's something called myoglobin, which is responsible for a lot of the colour and aroma in the meat that we eat.

And basically we took that DNA language, inserted it into another cell, and that cell became like a factory, basically producing a protein that hasn't been on the planet for 4,000 years now. And so we grew 40 billion of these cells to end up making the mammoth meatball. 

And you picked the mammoth of all the extinct creatures in the world on purpose. Why?  

Two reasons. One, it's really to draw attention and start this conversation that the future of food can be different now. It can be more exciting. We can start to eat things that weren't possible before when we thought about our farming systems and domesticated animals. 

But the other one is that the mammoth is a symbol of loss. They were wiped out by climate change. And humans, if we continue to ... [eat] the way that we eat now, we're quite likely to potentially do the same and wipe ourselves out.

And so we wanted to draw attention to this idea that this can now be a symbol of hope.

A man-made sculpture of a large shaggy creature with long tusks.
The woolly mammoth has been extinct for thousands of years. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

There's a reason I haven't asked what it tastes like yet. Because it's not to be eaten. Why is that? 

We're dealing with a protein that's very, very old. That's not to say that it wouldn't be safe, but we would want to put it through a large series of rigorous testing, like we would with any product that we want to bring to market.

So it was never intended to be a new product to commercialize. It was intended to start a conversation like this. It's about opening people's imaginations. 


Stephanie Hogan

Digital producer

Stephanie Hogan is a digital producer with CBC News, based in Toronto. She writes on a variety of subjects, with an interest in politics, health and the arts. She was previously political editor for The National and worked in various roles in TV and radio news.

Produced by Chris Trowbridge. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.