So in 2014, Modern Meadow switched its manufacturing process. Instead of using animal cells, the company began growing collagen–which is essentially what is left over after the hair, fat, and tissues are removed from skin–from yeast. “It’s a brand-new technology that enables us to grow the building blocks of nature, using a cell that we design and engineer ourselves,” Lee says. “In this instance, that cell is collagen, the protein that you find in your skin and in animal skin, and that really is the fundamental material that composes leather.”
But of course yeast does not, in and of itself, produce a collagen that perfectly mimics the collagen found in animal skin. Through a process of DNA editing, Modern Meadow adds two other enzymes (which they won’t name) to the yeast culture (which is rather beer-like in color) to enable it to produce collagen that effectively replicates skin protein. Those collagen strains ferment, they coalesce into a malleable network of fibers.
The process, Schofer adds, is highly scalable. “No one has ever engineered a yeast cell to produce collagen in the quantity that we need it to,” Lee says. That ability has allowed Modern Meadow to drive down its production costs to the point where their materials are on par with the cost of traditional leather. The yeast is fermented in large vats, like those used to make beer and wine, and the resulting liquid collagen is both large in quantity, and highly adaptable to various uses.
That, Lee says, is where Modern Meadow’s innovative properties really become apparent. “Once we’ve purified the collagen and created this liquid leather, we have a whole toolbox that’s open to us,” Lee says. “We can mold it or shape it into any form we like.” In other words, Modern Meadow is creating a material that is leather-like in its fundamental physical properties. But what makes it really resemble different forms of leather is how it is treated after it’s produced.
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