Scientists can already grow a hamburger in a petri dish. But before we see a cow’s lab-grown flesh in the grocery aisle, we could find its skin appearing on the fashion runways first.
That’s according to Modern Meadow, one startup in Brooklyn that is working to create a future that is “cultured not slaughtered.”
By harnessing recent advances in tissue and cell engineering technologies, the company is working on both edible and wearable products that don’t require live animals to manufacture. But CEO Andras Forgacs says that lab-grown leather will hit the market before lab-grown meat. For one, consumers will likely find it easier to accept new biotechnology in their jackets than on their dinner plates (the regulations are much stricter for food, too.)
Another big factor? Demand. Companies that buy leather, such as handbag makers or car seat producers, could find the technology immediately useful, Forgacs noted at a conference in New York City in December. Leather prices have been skyrocketing in recent years, as the world’s growing middle class buys both more leather and meat goods and climate volatility constricts supply in some regions. “We have partners that come to us and say, gosh, if you could just help resolve the supply-demand imbalance … that would be a huge value proposition,” he said.
The value proposition would actually be much greater than that. The production of leather today is a dirty and wasteful process. In some cases, an entire cow might be raised for its skin (though skins are also sold as a byproduct of cows slaughtered for meat). Chemical-intensive tanneries are also a heavily polluting industry, especially in the developing world. And because a cow doesn’t grow up in the shape of a car seat or purse, a lot of leather goes to waste even at the very end of the manufacturing process.
How is leather grown in a lab? First, Modern Meadow scientists take a biopsy from an animal, whether that is a cow, crocodile, or ostrich (“The variety of animals we can work with is virtually infinite,” Forgacs says) and isolate the skin cells in the lab. Next, they multiply the cells from millions to billions and grow them together in sheets. Modern Meadow has worked to maximize the production of collagen–the fundamental building block of leather–from the cells as the sheets form and, as the sheets are layered, that collagen creates fiber networks. This creates an “analog to a hide”–but a purer hide without any of the messy hair, flesh, or fat. which means fewer (but not zero) chemicals are needed to get it ready to turn into something you would wear.
The company revealed its first leather prototypes in 2013 and is now working with designers, engineers, and artisans to perfect the materials. No word yet on the costs, however.
Once, lab-grown leather does arrive, it may also open up new opportunities in design. Because it is grown from scratch, designers can mess around and create different kinds of properties than they’d get naturally. For example, Modern Meadow is playing around with materials that are stronger and thinner than traditional leather. In the future, the company could work on growing leather in three-dimensions–meaning designers could create more complicated shapes without stitching or wasted materials.
“Our goal is not perfect biomimicry. We’re not looking to create the, “I can’t believe this is not slaughtered leather, or I can’t believe this is not a slaughtered hamburger,” says Forgacs. “It’s to create products that if you were to design from the ground up, you could actually imbue with better properties in truly desirable ways.”