Fiber Watch: Will the Fashion World Embrace Test Tube Leather?

Would you wear in vitro leather?

Modern Meadow is the start up behind SciFi-esque developments in leather and meat engineering by pioneering a method of producing skin and muscle tissues made in a laboratory. While the company has made headlines for its development of tissue engineered meat that could eliminate several issues caused by the beef industry, they’ve chosen to focus on leather first as a less controversial venture in the eyes of consumers.

Fake leather in the form of pleather, wax cloth and Naugahyde has been covering our bodies accessories and furniture for several decades, but often made with synthetics and toxic chemicals. Real leather is the skin of an animal, and is much simpler in structure than meat, making it a less demanding venture to begin with. The next few years will see Modern Meadow perfecting their materials and processes, with the aim of establishing a fully functioning leather manufacturing facility within 5 years.

So how exactly is engineered leather made? The process starts off by obtaining source cells from any animal typically used for leather production, whether it be livestock like cattle or exotic species of snakes. These cells are then isolated, extracted and genetically modified to make them ideal for leather production, although the cells would not require modification if used for meat production.

A bioreactor is used to multiply the extracted cells to produce billions of them, after which they are lumped together by centrifugal force. These sphere-like cell formations are layered and fused into a specific shape through 3D bio-printing. Once printed, the fused cell formation is put into a bioreactor once again, allowing the cells to mature so that they begin to produce a collagen casing for the cells that eventually turns into leather. If kept in the bioreactor, muscle growth among the cells inside the casing would eventually turn into meat.

Several weeks later, food is no longer provided to the cells, turning the skin into hide and the muscle and fat tissue into meat. The hide has no hair on it and is devoid of a tough outer skin, decreasing the amount of time, chemicals, and water required in conventional tanning. An inherent difference is obviously the complete lack of animal slaughter, making engineered leather and meat interesting propositions for animal rights activists.

Modern Meadows is definitely looking to eventually produce engineered meat for the food industry, although they know they have a long way to go in order to stimulate acceptance from the general public. Wearing seems to be one thing, whilst eating the technological substance is a completely different story. Although a whopping 40% would be willing to try the somewhat eerie idea of engineered meat, it is not a promising enough investment as the idea of eating meat grown in a bioreactor seems too futuristic even for our technology-addicted culture.

But what do we face with the prospect of engineered leather? Although a huge step for animal welfare and reduction of environmentally hazardous tanning processes, what else can the technological leap mean? Will we soon see someone cashing in on Beyonce-skin handbags or baby-skin gloves?

Image: PETA