Company added mammoth DNA to veggie burgers, says taste was ‘intense’

  • A Belgian startup claims to have added woolly mammoth DNA to a plant-based burger.
  • The mammoth myoglobin gave it a more intense taste and aroma and a richer color, the CEO said.
  • But it’s unclear when, if ever, the mammoth protein will hit grocery store shelves.

The cultured meat industry has officially gone prehistoric, with companies even making new products containing the DNA of the woolly mammoth, an animal that went extinct around 10,000 years ago.

Belgian startup Paleo says it added woolly mammoth protein to a plant-based burger – and the result was more intense than with cow. The company uses precision fermentation technology to develop different animal heme proteins, including those found in beef, chicken, pork, lamb, tuna, and even mammoth.

The proteins, or myoglobins, can then be added to any meat substitute, including cultured meat, to provide meaty flavor. In living animals, myoglobin stores oxygen in the muscles. It is the protein that gives meat a red color. Although it may look like blood, the juices from a medium-rare steak are red due to myoglobin.

But Paleo used precise fermentation, along with yeast, to produce myoglobin without using animal cells. They made mammoth myoglobin using short DNA sequences extracted from a 1.2 million year old fossil at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden.

“The ancient DNA is fragmented, so it’s like putting a puzzle together,” Paleo founder and CEO Hermes Sanctorum told Insider in an email. “The myoglobin gene from Asian and African elephants was used to align (compare) these small DNA fragments with each other and to reconstruct a complete sequence.”

Sanctorum said the company added the mammoth protein to several different versions of plant-based burgers and tasted it. He explained that when cow myoglobin is added to a meatless burger, it gives a meaty taste and aroma and a spectacular red color, but the results were even more pronounced with the mammoth.

“When mammoth myoglobin is added instead, it tastes even more intense – meatier. And the chemical analysis confirmed that,” Sanctorum said, adding “more flavor compounds associated with grilled meat are present than in the case of cow myoglobin”.

A meat scientist told Insider he wasn’t sure how different myoglobins impact meat flavor.

“Grease and caramelization of proteins are generally what I think affect the flavor of meat,”
said Gregg Rentfrow, a professor at the University of Kentucky Animal and Food Science Extension.

He added that myoglobin usually makes up only a small percentage of total meat. He said the amount of myoglobin generally matters more for flavor, noting beef has a lot more than chicken, which is why it’s a darker meat, but he wasn’t sure in the case of cultured meat.

Generally, myoglobin has a slightly metallic taste due to the iron atoms it carries.

Paleo said it developed its mammoth myoglobin two years ago and has patent applications pending.

Another company also recently launched mammoth meat. Australian cultured meat company Vow announced last week that it had made a massive “mammoth meatball” to raise awareness of alternatives to meat.

The company took an incomplete mammoth DNA sequence and filled it in with African elephant DNA fragments to create its mammoth myoglobin gene, which was then injected into cultured sheep cells in laboratory.

Unlike Paleo, Vow said no one had tasted the meatball because it was feared that humans might be allergic to mammoth protein, since humans haven’t eaten mammoth in thousands of years.

However, Sanctorum said Paleo was able to verify that their mammoth myoglobin was safe to eat and that they were comfortable tasting it. But the mammoth won’t quite hit the grocery store shelves just yet.

As Paleo is a B2B company – it sells its proteins to food manufacturers who try to make their meat substitutes look, smell and taste like real meat – it will depend on whether these manufacturers for the mammoth. But Sanctorum said its intense flavor and more stable color potential provide opportunities for the food industry.

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