mammoth and meatballs
Mammoth and meatballs

While Italy divides itself debating the ethics of so-called synthetic meat, with Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida‘s clear “NO” to its production and marketing in our country, the new frontier of “table science” comes from Australia: “the first mammoth meatball in history” is born. Also “synthetic”, of course, as mammoths have been extinct for some 4,000 years.

An authentic “resurrection”, if one may call it that, given the Easter period that has just ended, which brought one of the best-known prehistoric animals ever directly “from the glacier to the frying pan”.

The more “curious” aspect of this invention is mirrored by an extremely interesting piece of research in terms of Intellectual Property, which closely resembles what Steven Spielberg and, before him, Michael Crichton recounted in the novel published in 1990: we are of course talking about the timeless Jurassic Park.

How the mammoth meatball was born

The first mammoth meatball was unveiled to the public in late March from the halls of the Nemo Science Museum in Amsterdam, the result of a scientific experiment involving the advanced molecular engineering department of the Australian cultivated meat company Vow, alongside a team of international experts.

It is here that we find the parallels with Jurassic Park’s InGen, as the mammoth meat was made using an innovative technology, capable of extracting a DNA molecule from a woolly mammoth and filling in the missing pieces of the genome with some DNA fragments from the African elephant, a direct descendant of the colossus that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

A procedure very similar to the one adopted by John Hammond‘s character in Jurassic Park where the DNA of modern reptiles was added to that of dinosaurs recovered from mosquitoes fossilised in amber to bring the Jurassic giants back to life.

The idea is said to have been conceived by Bas Korsten, Chief Creative Officer at global creative agency Wunderman Thompson, and an international team of experts and scientists led by Professor Ernst Wolvetang and Dr Giovanni Pietrogrande of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia: they would fill in the missing gaps in the mammoth genome sequence and insert it into a carrier cell. The actual production, however, is the pride of the Australian cultivated meat start-up Vow.

The goal of the experiment

According to the New York Times, 28-30% of global greenhouse gases is generated by food production. Add to this the increase in global population, which is now approaching 9 billion, and the result is that to provide everyone with a hot meal, we will have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have produced in the last 8,000 years, as reported by the World Economic Forum.

If current practices continue, by 2050 we will need two planets to feed a population of 10 billion people – reads the statement on mammothmeatball.comMoreover, the pressure to meet the growing demand is leading to inhuman living conditions for animals. This is unacceptable and it is time for a change”.

Why mammoth meat?

The mammoth is a monumental symbol, and rather than an actual “dish” it represents more of a provocation: “We created this meatball because the mammoth is a giant symbol of loss – explains Tim Noakesmith, Founder of Vow – Let us hope our meatball will “resurrect” conversations about meat and climate change”. The meatball may in fact not be edible, as we cannot know if and how harmful it may be to us, since our immune system has never come into contact with the mammoth meat protein. “The goal is to transition a few billion meat eaters away from eating [conventional] animal protein to eating things that can be produced in electrified systems. – Vow CEO George Peppou  told the GuardianAnd we believe the best way to do that is to invent meat. We look for cells that are easy to grow, really tasty and nutritious, and then mix and match those cells to create really tasty meat”.

The foodtech patent battle

The creation of the mammoth meatball, however, is not a special case, quite the contrary. The media campaign promoted by Vow in fact triggered the surprised reaction of another foodtech company, the Belgian Paleo, which claimed to have already developed the same mammoth protein, and several months earlier than the Australian Vow(here the PCT patent application), saying it was ready to wage a legal battle against its Australian colleagues.

Paleo CEO’s comment

When we learned about the event we were surprised – says Hermes Sanctorum, CEO of Paleo -. We sent out a press release nine months ago to announce that we developed the exact same mammoth protein”.

Paleo filed a PCT patent application for its “meat substitute comprising an animal myoglobin, preferably a mammalian myoglobin, more preferably from mammoth, pig, sheep or cow”. Although still at the international stage, it has been published since July 2022: “If another company is using that technology to make something and make a large claim, like being the world’s first, that’s highly unethical”, Sanctorum added.

On the other hand, Vow responded by reiterating that the technology that enabled the creation of the mammoth meatball has nothing to do with any alleged Paleo invention.

The Importance of a correct Intellectual Property strategy

The foodtech field is certainly undergoing an incredible acceleration in recent months, both in terms of research and development and in terms of actual production. Hence, it is all the more important for companies and start-ups in the sector to understand in advance how, where and when to protect and enhance their insights and products by setting up a forward-looking IP strategy.