From spore to mat
Fungus-derived leather technologies were first patented by US companies MycoWorks and Ecovative Design about five years ago.
These technologies take advantage of the root-like structure of mushrooms, called mycelium, which contains the same polymer found in crab shells. When mushroom roots are grown on sawdust or agricultural waste, they form a thick mat that can then be treated to resemble leather.
Mycelium is the vegetative body for fungi that produces mushrooms. Fungal colonies made of mycelium can be found in and on soil and wood. Shutterstock
Because it’s the roots and not the mushrooms being used, this natural biological process can be carried out anywhere. It does not require light, converts waste into useful materials and stores carbon by accumulating it in the growing fungus.
Going from a single spore to a finished “fungi leather” (or “mycelium leather”) product takes a couple of weeks, compared with years required to raise a cow to maturity.
The process is quite simple and can be completed with minimal equipment and resources by artisans. It can also be industrially scaled for mass production. The final product looks and feels like animal leather and has similar durability.
Mushroom for progress
It’s important to remember despite years of development, this technology is still in its infancy. Traditional leather production has been refined to perfection over thousands of years.
There are bound to be some teething problems when adopting fungal leather. And despite its biodegradability and low-energy manufacturing, this product alone won’t be enough to solve the sustainability crisis.
There are wider environmental concerns over animal farming and the proliferation of plastics – both of which are independent of leather production.
Nonetheless, using creativity to harness new technologies can only be a step in the right direction. As the world continues its gradual shift towards sustainable living, perhaps seeing progress in one domain will inspire hope for others.
Will I be wearing it anytime soon?
Commercial products made with fungi-derived leather are expected to be on sale soon – so the real question is whether it will cost you an arm and a leg.
Prototypes were released last year in the US, Italy and Indonesia, in products including watches, purses, bags and shoes.
The signs are promising.
MycoWorks raised US$17 million in venture capital last year.And while these fundraiser items were a little pricey – with one designer bag selling for US$500 – manufacturing cost estimates indicate the material could become economically competitive with traditional leather once manufactured on a larger scale.
Ultimately, there’s no good reason fungal leather alternatives couldn’t eventually replace animal leather in many consumer products.
So next time you pass the mushrooms at the supermarket, make sure you acquaint yourself. You may be seeing a whole lot more of each other soon.
Republished from The Conversation. Author Postdoctoral researcher, Vienna University of Technology.