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Why your next leather jacket or bag could be made of fungus

Your next leather jacket, pair of shoes, or bag could be made from specially engineered fungi, if research coming out of the University of Vienna, Imperial College London, and RMIT University in Australia turns out to be prophetic. Scientists at these institutions have been investigating the possibility of creating a sustainable leather substitute made from mushroom material — and it may compare very favorably to both traditional animal-based leather and the more recent plastic-derived versions.

The problem with animal-based leather is not just that it entails the death of animals (which you may have ethical concerns over), but also the deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions that accompany the farming of livestock. In addition, the leather treatment process called tanning involves hazardous chemicals that can be harmful to the environment. Meanwhile, plastic leather alternatives are made from fossil fuels and do not biodegrade. Fungi might be the answer.

There are different ways to turn fungi into usable materials. “[In my lab], the approach we favor involves using a liquid residue like molasses or whey from milk production,” Alexander Bismarck, a professor from the University of Vienna and Imperial’s Department of Chemical Engineering, told Digital Trends. “You can then grow the mycelium (a matted mass of fungal thread) in that medium, and use the fungal materials produced to turn into nanomaterials — in this case, the fungal leather alternative.”

Leather bag
Mylo Driver Bag from Bolt Threads

Within a few weeks of being produced, sheets of the fungal material can be harvested and treated to produce a material, made of biodegradable chitin and glucan biopolymers, that feels similar to animal leather. While Bismarck’s lab is not directly commercializing fungi-based leather, he said that such a material is “already quite near the market.”

He also noted that it could be tweaked to produce some interesting qualities, such as material that only lasts a short period of time or something much hardier and long-lasting. “I don’t want to overhype it, but I think if with appropriate care, you could have leather alternatives with a similar behavior [to animal-based leather],” he said. “That’s something that’s still out to be explored.”

His lab and fellow researchers are also interested in other textile applications for fungus-based materials. These can range from building materials to wound coverings with antibacterial properties.

These researchers aren’t the only people busy developing sustainable leather alternatives in a similar way. Startups such as Bolt Threads are also creating mycelium-based fungal leather that “can be produced in days versus years, a process that minimizes our environmental impact.” Hopefully, it won’t be too long before this technology hits the mass market.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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