Lab-Grown Leather: Cool or Creepy?

Lab leatherFlickr/ravensong75/CC BY 2.0

Last month it was disclosed that PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s foundation would be funding Missouri-based startup Modern Meadow’s efforts to produce in vitro meat and leather.

Meat grown in a lab may be one of the creepier sci-fi themes about to come to life. Although the environmental advantages are undeniable, it’s just too conceptually whacko – bringing to fruition something dead that mimics something once alive? And to eat, no less? Has the human species jumped the shark?

But what about growing leather in the lab? From wax cloth to Naugahyde to pleather to leatherette, we’ve been making ersatz leather textiles for ages. Engineering actual tissue looks to be the next oddly logical step; real(ish) leather without harm to animals and less environmental impact during the tanning process.

Modern Meadow cofounder and CEO, Andras Forgacs, spoke to Txchnologist, about what’s on the agenda for the company. First off, the laboratory leather – which will use a similar process as in vitro meat, but will need less regulatory approval and has less of a PR problem. Forgacs says, “Our emphasis first is not on meat, it’s on leather. The main reason is that, technically, skin is a simpler structure than meat, making it easier to produce.” He also notes that, “There’s much less controversy around using leather that doesn’t involve killing animals.”

Most simply described, the process begins with harvesting livestock cells and multiplying them in a bioreactor before purifying and fusing them together, possibly using 3-D bioprinting. The cells will then be allowed to mature to stimulate collagen production. (For a more detailed description, see here.)

Forgacs says that a full-scale leather facility could be pumping out hides in a mere five years. They will also be working on growing in vitro meat, but they expect that the regulatory approval hoops could keep Modern Meadow flesh out of the meat market until 2022 or so.

So what do you think? Cool or creepy?


Lab-Grown Leather: Cool or Creepy?
Modern Meadow plans to mass produce "tissue-engineered" animal skins by 2017. Would you wear it?

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