Company Added Mammoth DNA to Veggie Burgers, Says Taste Was ‘Intense’

Company Added Mammoth DNA to Veggie Burgers, Says Taste Was ‘Intense’
  • A Belgian startup says it 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, mammoth protein will make it to grocery store shelves.

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

The Belgian startup Paleo says it added woolly mammoth protein to a plant-based burger — and that the result was more intense than with cow. The company uses precision fermentation technology to develop different animal heme proteins, including that which are 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 a meaty taste. In live animals, myoglobin stores oxygen in the muscles. It’s the protein that gives meat a red color. Though it may look like blood, the juices of a medium-rare steak are red because of myoglobin.

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

“Old DNA is fragmented, so it’s like assembling a puzzle,” Hermes Sanctorum, the founder and CEO of Paleo, told Insider in an email. “The myoglobin gene from the Asian and African elephants was used to align (compare) these small DNA fragments with each other, and to reconstruct a full 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 meat-free burger, it provides a meat-like taste and aroma, and dramatic red color, but the results were even more pronounced with mammoth.

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

A meat science specialist told Insider he was unsure to how different myoglobins would impact the flavor of meat.

“Fat and caramelization of proteins is usually what I think about as affecting the flavor of meat,”
said Gregg Rentfrow, a professor at the University of Kentucky Animal and Food Science Extension.

He added that myoglobin typically makes up only a small percentage of the overall meat. He said the quantity of myoglobin typically matters more for flavor, noting beef has a lot more than chicken, which is why it’s a darker meat, but that he was unsure in the case of cultured meat.

Generally, myoglobin has a slightly metallic taste because of the iron atoms it carries.

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

Another company also recently debuted mammoth meat. The Australian cultured meat company Vow announced last week it made a massive “mammoth meatball” in order to raise awareness about meat alternatives.

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

Unlike Paleo, Vow said no one had tasted the meatball because there were concerns humans could be allergic to the mammoth protein, since humans have not consumed mammoth in thousands of years.

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

As Paleo is a B2B company —  it sells its proteins to food manufacturers who are trying to make their meat substitutes look, smell, and taste like actual meat — it will depend on whether or not those manufacturers are interested in mammoth. But Sanctorum said its intense flavor and potential to be more color-stable does provide some opportunities for the food industry.