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Food for thought: A mammoth meatball washed down with powdered beer

by Alex Scott
April 30, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 14


A large meatball made from permafrost-preserved woolly mammoth DNA.
Credit: Aico Lind/Studio Aico
Stone-aged snack: Vow has made a woolly mammoth meatball from permafrost-preserved DNA.

A mammoth meatball

More sauce with your mammoth meatball? Yes, the woolly mammoth went extinct 4,000 years ago, but thanks to some genetic tinkering, the cultivated meat company Vow was recently able to roll a freshly made mammoth meatball out of its labs in Australia.

The company worked on the project with Ernst Wolvetang, a professor at the University of Queensland. He took DNA from permafrost-preserved mammoth myoglobin—a muscle protein—and filled any gaps in the sequence with the DNA of the African elephant, the mammoth’s close relative. Wolvetang then placed the DNA sequence in a sheep’s myoblast stem cells, which replicated the cells for Vow to grow into mammoth meat.

Vow made the one-off wonder meatball to highlight the link between modern meat production and Earth’s climate emergency. Cultivated meat has a smaller environmental footprint than meat generated from livestock such as cattle, as the former requires very little land and does not generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

It turns out that our ancient ancestors didn’t finish off the mammoth by consuming too many giant meatballs—climate change was a killer then, too. Mammoths went extinct because the plants they ate were wiped out by melting icebergs. This was shown in a 2021 study in Nature via analysis of ancient environmental DNA (DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05453-y).

Despite Vow’s efforts to cook up the mammoth meatball, the firm remains in the dark about whether the meat is tasty: no one has tried it. According to the company, humans haven’t consumed this kind of protein for thousands of years, so there’s no way of knowing how the immune system of modern humans would react to it. Vow has donated its untried meaty mass to the Dutch science and medicine museum Rijksmuseum Boerhaave.


Powdered beer on a table next to a glass of beer and the box the powdered beer is packaged in.
Credit: Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle
Brew in a box: Just add water and Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle's powder turns into beer.

Powdered beer

If you had mammoth meatball on the end of your fork, perhaps it would go well with a powdered beer? Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, a brewery founded in the 12th century by monks in the eastern German town of Neuzelle, has created such a beverage. Adding water to the powder makes a concoction that looks and tastes like beer, and a dextrin-rich malt means it rehydrates “with a real head of foam,” the company says in a press release.

Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle uses traditional brewing methods to make a beer, then dehydrates it into a granular form. The company has begun selling the product in small volumes to test the market’s appetite. The firm’s first powdered beer is alcohol-free, but the brewery is already working on an alcoholic version.

Stefan Fritsche, managing director of the company, admits that a powdered beer may not go down well with many of his country’s traditional beer lovers. “The classic pilsner drinkers and all craft beer enthusiasts, especially in Germany, will be skeptical about our product at first,” he says.

The beer will have environmental and cost benefits, though, according to Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle. Transporting powdered beer will consume far less fuel, as it’s about 10% of the weight of liquid beer.

The brewers want to further develop the manufacturing process for their beer powder in a way that compresses and transforms the traditional brewing process. This is in an effort to minimize costs and reduce use of resources including raw materials, energy, and labor. The brewery is now in talks with investors to take these next steps. Prost!

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