Leather, Grown in a Lab Without Cows

To make leather, first you have to raise a cow.

Or another animal, though you really do need the whole animal because since pretty much the beginning of time, it has not been possible to grow skin for leather without the attendant flesh and bone and blood and guts.

But now a company called Modern Meadow says it can “biofabricate” leather without the rest of the cow. It does not quite grow cow skin, either; it grows a strain of yeast engineered to produce collagen, the protein in skin that gives leather its strength and stretch. Traditionally, making leather amounts to removing almost everything from skin (fat, hair, etc.) that isn’t collagen. Modern Meadow is basically skipping ahead. Once purified, pressed into sheets, and tanned, their vat-grown collagen becomes, essentially, leather.

No dead cows. No scars or nicks. And none of the petrochemicals used to make pleather or vegan leather.

It’s a radical new way of making leather, reliant on genetic engineering and decoupled from the processes of traditional agriculture. Engineered yeasts have long been used in the production of drugs like insulin, but recently—and perhaps surprisingly given the debate over genetic engineering—they’re entering the world of luxury goods: spider silk, perfume, and now leather.

When Modern Meadow publicly unveils its leather in the next month—in the form of a “reimagined” graphic T-shirt—it will not be at a store but at a fashion exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The company employs a chief creative officer as well as a professional tanner, and it’s been carefully cultivating its mystique. Modern Meadow doesn’t just want to imitate leather, the company keeps reiterating; it wants to reimagine leather, transcending the physical limits of a cow.

The T-shirt “will change the way you think about leather,” promised David Williamson, the company’s chief technology officer, though he could not yet reveal to me how.

* * *

Modern Meadow was not always so interested in fashion. Its founders—CEO Andras Forgacs and his father and chief scientific officer Gabor Forgacs—had previously started the company Organovo to grow human tissue for medical and pharmaceutical research. Going from engineering human tissue to animal tissue, says Andras Forgacs, seemed like a logical next step. In 2011, they started Modern Meadow with the goal of growing leather and eventually meat in tissue culture.

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