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Comment Processing & Handling

Protein engineering yields animal-free leather

By Mary Page Bailey |

A new fermentation-based technology aims to create leather materials from yeast rather than animal skin. Developed by Modern Meadow (Nutley, N.J.; www.modernmeadow.com), the process feeds sugar feedstock to yeast cells that have been engineered to create collagen. Some additional enzymes are required during fermentation to facilitate the yeast’s production of collagen. The collagen is then purified and assembled to create the bio-leather material known as Zoa.

leather

Zoa bioleather materials

Not only is the production time for Zoa significantly lower than for animal-based leather, the material is also very customizable for shape, size, texture and other properties, explains Dave Williamson, Modern Meadow’s chief technology officer. He likens the process to the activities of a fibroblast cell — assembling collagen proteins into collagen fibers in human and animal tissue — taking place in large-scale process vessels. Zoa is biologically similar to traditional leather, but it also enables functionality that is not possible with traditional leather, including the ability to be poured or sprayed in a liquid form, and the potential for integration with other fibrous media to make composite materials. “We can change or introduce a functional group on the protein to alter material properties, such as softness, colorfastness, or even material strength,” says Williamson. Starting with the production of collagen proteins makes the process not only highly tunable in terms of end-product properties, but also scalable and logistically efficient. “We can purify and ship the protein anywhere in the world for conversion to the final material. We are able to have complete control over the structure and properties of the protein,” he adds.

Modern Meadow recently announced a joint-development agreement with Evonik Industries AG (Essen, Germany; www.evonik.com) to scale up the technology to produce Zoa at commercial level. The group expects to launch its first commercial product in the next 1–2 years. The partners will also move forward with the expansion of a pilot facility later this year.

leather

Modern Meadow’s design lab, where they come up with new applications of their bioleather materials

leather

Leather made in a lab overcomes many cost and logistics concerns with traditional leather

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