IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Lab-grown leather destined for a mall near you 

The livestock industry may be challenged by lab-grown meat and leather.Sue Ogrocki / AP

Shoes, belts and handbags made with leather grown in the lab, not on a cow, may be available for purchase within five years, according to a biotech company that’s aiming to disrupt the livestock industry.

The company, Modern Meadow, made headlines in August when PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s foundation announced a six-figure investment in the company’s 3-D bioprinting technology to produce meat and leather.

Chief executive and cofounder Andras Forgacs recently described Modern Meadow’s goals in an interview with the Txchnologist, an online magazine published in partnership with GE.

The first product to be released, he said, will be leather because “technically, skin is a simpler structure than meat, making it easier to produce.”

While the company will also forge ahead on meat production, regulatory approvals could keep it from our dinner plates for at least a decade.

The five-step process to make both is laid out by Txchnologist

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.

The process is distinct from the bovine stem cell technique pioneered by Mark Post, a physiologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, and reported on earlier this year by NBC News Digital’s Alan Boyle. 

In that process, Boyle explained, the bovine stem cells are grown in a vat, transformed into thousands of layers of beef muscle cells, minced into tiny pieces and combined with lab grown fat to form a mini hamburger patty.

The first such burger is expected to be cooked up and served this October. All told, it’ll be an expensive meal: $330,000, tip not included.

The race to create lab-grown leather and meat is seen by investors as a potentially lucrative means to capture a share of the combined $2.5 trillion market while doing some good for the environment.

Meat production consumes more than half of the world’s estimated agricultural resources, according the United Nations and by 2050 demand for meat is expected double.

“If we can come up with a very good product that can be technically superior in some ways and at the same time environmentally more conscious and animal friendly, then that could mean a significant portion of the global market,” Forgacs told Txchnologist.

The question is, will consumers go for leather and meat grown in a lab?

 – via Txchnologist 

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.