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This leather substitute is grown in a New Jersey lab

Modern Meadow, a New Jersey-based startup, is using biotechnology to produce material that looks and feels similar to leather. The company says that producing this leather-like material, made of lab-grown collagen, carries a lower environmental impact than other means of leather production. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports.

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  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Modern Meadow's lab looks more brewery than bio-tech. But it won't be an IPA or a pale ale on the other end of this fermentation.

  • DAVE WILLIAMSON:

    I wish I had a homebrew set like this.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Dave Williamson is the chief technology officer at Modern Meadow. It's been perfecting a product for the past six years that will look, feel and be biologically similar to one of humankind's most durable and versatile materials – leather.

  • DAVE WILLIAMSON:

    None of our DNA actually comes from any animal at all. It all starts synthetically.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    If you think what they're making is pleather, you'd be wrong. The process that starts in these labs is known as biofabrication. The company uses a specially designed DNA sequence inserted into yeast cells. These custom cells are engineered to produce protein.

    It's one of the first steps in creating the leather-like fabric.

  • DAVE WILLIAMSON:

    What you can see along this bank here, is six different fermenters. And we carry out the very same process that you would use if you're making beer or wine. We feed them sugar. We feed them vitamins and minerals and instead of making you know alcohol, we make protein.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The protein the company is growing is collagen, the same protein found in human and animal skin. It's a key step in the biofabrication process. The more collagen grown, the more fabric Modern Meadow can produce.

    Technicians then purify and assemble the protein into a material using a proprietary technique. The end result is a fabric that looks and feels like leather.

  • SUZANNE LEE:

    Biofabrication is, it's like a new material category.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Suzanne Lee is the chief creative officer at Modern Meadow. With a background in design and fashion, she works side-by-side with scientists to design functional new materials.

  • SUZANNE LEE:

    So if you think about the sort of history of materials, we've had natural materials from you know the natural world and then in the 20th century manmade materials that were from a petrochemicals source. The promise of biofabrication is actually bringing the best of both those worlds together.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Lee also says anything grown in its labs means a reduced environmental impact.

  • SUZANNE LEE:

    We're significantly reducing the inputs of things like water, land, CO2, and so forth. So the environmental profile of a material that is being manufactured in this way really has the potential to be dramatically different to traditional materials.

  • JOSHUA KATCHER:

    Leather is the single worst material for the environment.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Joshua Katcher is the owner of a men's vegan clothing line in Brooklyn, New York. He has taught classes on sustainable fashion at Parsons School of Design.

  • JOSHUA KATCHER:

    If you look at it from the perspective of a designer we look at the leather industry right now, it's bad design. It's so inefficient, it's so messy, it's so dirty, and you end up with a product that we can make in other ways that we can make better, superior.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Producing traditional leather requires massive amounts of water. And toxic chemicals used to process the animal hides can seep into local waterways. That's in addition to the land and resources required to raise the animals in the first place.

  • JOSHUA KATCHER:

    Biofabrication is offering a solution that says, 'hey we don't need to raise these animals we don't need to harm or kill these animals and we don't need to use all of these resources to yield something like a fiber we can grow it in the laboratory at a much much smaller impact.'

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    But what's going on here is about more than just leather. Suzanne Lee says the promise of biofabrication is the ability to control the properties of whatever materials Modern Meadow creates. For instance it can make a material less flexible or more breathable depending on what it wants. And the applications can extend to home interiors or even car seats.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    What are we going to see in the design of fashion with this new world of materials?

  • SUZANNE LEE:

    I think that's the fun bit in a way it opens up a lot of opportunity for us to explore new textures, the way something looks and feels that perhaps challenges you to what you expected. It could come in liquid form. We could spray it, we could mold it. There are many, many other things that we can now do that we didn't imagine five years ago.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Last year, the company launched the clothing brand, Zoa. It's first product, a white t-shirt pieced together using its leather-like biofabricated material, was recently displayed in the museum of modern art as part of a fashion exhibit. Investors have poured more than 50 million in venture funding but the company has yet to produce any clothing that's commercially available.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    So it's a ways off from say being able to purchase a shirt at Walmart that's been biofabricated?

  • SUZANNE LEE:

    Right. I mean, you know the first, the first thing is always going to be that any new technology is both expensive in the first instance and limited in its volume. But as all these companies scale the technology then it will come down in price and become more available.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Modern Meadow isn't alone in creating biofabricated fashion materials. Several other companies are experimenting with similar technology.

  • BOLT THREADS AD:

    Here at Bolt Threads, we've developed a way to replicate the proteins from spider silk and spin them into fibers and yarns.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Bolt Threads, a California company, created this tie from biofabricated silk. Joshua Katcher was one of 50 people to buy one for about $300. He calls it a piece of fashion history.

  • JOSHUA KATCHER:

    We're talking about an ability to have a form of ultimate control over how an object functions what it looks like how it feels. Today we're quite limited to what what nature allows and we can move beyond that.

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