A shortage in the world’s supply of leather has caused ripple effects throughout the auto upholstery industry – most notably, an increase in the price of quality hides. While most industry insiders – from tanneries to trim shops – are at the mercy of cattle farmers, one company is working to sever our reliance on animals once and for all.
No, I’m not talking about faux materials. Rather, real leather made in a lab.
Modern Meadow – a company better known for its work creating lab-engineered meat – is leading this revolution. Through in-vitro technology, it’s creating flawless leather hides without having to raise or slaughter a single cow.
Txchnologist, which interviewed company cofounder and CEO Andras Forgacs, explains:
As it stands now, there are five steps Modern Meadow will use to culture tissues for leather and food.
Step 1-Source cells by taking punch biopsies of donor animals, which could be livestock that would otherwise by used for food and leather or exotic animals typically killed for their skin. Isolate the extracted cells and possibly make beneficial genetic modifications for leather. Forgacs says cells destined to be used as meat would not be modified.
Step 2- Proliferate the millions of extracted cells into billions and billions in a bioreactor or other growth apparatus. Centrifuge the products to eliminate the growth medium from the cells and then lump cells together to create aggregated spheres of cells.
Step 3- Put the cell aggregates together in layers and allow them to fuse together in a process called bioassembly. Modern Meadow is considering a number of techniques for this, including 3-D bioprinting.
Step 4- Put the newly fused cells in a bioreactor and give them time to mature. “We create the embryonic precursor and in the bioreactor apply physical cues to let nature take over,” Forgacs says. “This stimulates collagen production in the case of the cells that will become leather and muscle growth in what will become meat.”
Step 5- After several weeks, no more food is provided to the cells. Skin tissue turns to hide. Muscle and fat tissue is harvested for food. Because the hides do not have hair or tough outer skin on them, they go through an abbreviated tanning process that decreases the amount of toxic chemicals needed.
“Nothing we’re doing requires a scientific leap of faith,” Forgacs says. “There’s no science we’re using that we’re not confident with. This isn’t about scientific risks, it’s about engineering challenges.” [more]
Scientific jargon aside, this new method of harvesting leather has the potential to meet growing industry demand for quality hides – and, in turn, lower costs. Of course, near-flawless hides are an added bonus.
Still, lab-engineered leather may not be available for at least five years. But I suppose all good things come to those who wait.