As you probably learned in college when you started wearing Doc Martin boots and smoking Marlboro Reds, leather jackets are expensive. That’s because leather is expensive, and as cows continue to belch greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and require rain forest to be razed so they have space to graze, it’s just going to get more expensive. But don’t worry. Scientists have a solution. They’re just going to make leather in a lab. You and your groupies won’t even know the difference.
The magic is happening in Missouri of all places, where the new biotech company Modern Meadow is based. You might’ve heard of these guys last month, when news broke that PayPal co-founder and enemy of higher education Peter Thiel invested a six-figure sum into the company to help them produce 3D-printed meat. Turns out the company is much more interested in perfecting a process for growing leather in a lab setting. They’re not talking about that crappy, crispy synthetic leather, either. They say they can grow the genuine article.
"Our emphasis first is not on meat, it's on leather," said Modern Meadow cofounder and CEO Andras Forgacs. "The main reason is that, technically, skin is a simpler structure than meat, making it easier to produce." Plus, the vegetarians and vegans might even get on board. "Anecdotally, we've found that around 40 percent of people would be willing to try cultured meat," Forgacs explained. "There's much less controversy around using leather that doesn't involve killing animals."
The process does, however, involve extracting cells from donor animals. (Vegans don’t like it when you mess with animals.) The cells are then genetically modified to make them better suited to producing leather, before they go into a growth apparatus to multiply. Once they have billions of cells to work with, Modern Meadow’s scientists clump them together into aggregated spheres that can be fuse together in a process called bioassembly. It’s possible to use a 3D-printer for this part of the process but not necessarily required. At this point, they let nature take over, so that the assembled cells mature into skin tissue. Once they stop feeding the tissue, it turns into hide that can be tanned and cut into jacket-shaped pieces — or boot-shaped or car seat-shaped or whatever — that can be sold on the market.
There are a lot of solid environmental reasons for growing leather this way. Researchers say that cultured meat produces between 78 and 96 percent fewer greenhouse gases and up to 96 percent less water than traditional agriculture methods. That’s not necessarily the only reason Forgacs and his buddies are doing growing leather and printing meat, though. “We got into this for several reasons,” Forgacs says, “because it's possible, it's new, it's exciting and it's important.”