• Tech Tech

Researchers develop innovative new method to make leather without animals: 'A major achievement'

"The work also shows the impact that can happen when scientists and designers work together."

"The work also shows the impact that can happen when scientists and designers work together."

Photo Credit: iStock

Scientists have made a significant breakthrough in making vegan leather even more sustainable by using genetically engineered bacteria to grow the material. 

While creating eco-friendly fabrics with microbes is nothing new, the research team says theirs is the first to have been modified to produce self-dyeing leather, which can eliminate the need for synthetic chemical dyes — one of the most environmentally damaging processes in the fashion industry, per Interesting Engineering.  

In addition, alternative leather products usually contain plastics, either in the actual fabric or coating, which are often derived from petroleum and aren't biodegradable, according to the Guardian

To solve these challenges plaguing the fashion and leather industries, researchers from Imperial College London collaborated with material designer Jen Keane to create prototypes using bacterial cellulose sheets.

According to Imperial, they created the self-dyeing leather by engineering a type of bacteria that produces microbial cellulose sheets, which works perfectly for textiles because it's both durable and pliable. The genetic modifications then "instructed" the microbes growing the leather to produce black pigment.

The team grew the upper part of a shoe with the bacteria by cultivating it in a "shoe-shaped vessel" for two weeks. Once the cellulose resembled a shoe, the team gently shook it at 86 degrees to activate the black pigment in the bacteria, which dyed the leather from the inside. 

They also created a black wallet by sewing two square-shaped cellulose sheets together. 

As Imperial reported, the research team said the bacteria "can be engineered using genes from other microbes" to produce various patterns, colors, and other fabrics, such as cashmere and cotton.

"Our technique works at large enough scales to create real-life products, as shown by our prototypes," co-author of the research, Dr. Kenneth Walker, told Imperial. "The work also shows the impact that can happen when scientists and designers work together."

However, the team's attempts to grow a greener future for the fashion industry didn't stop there. It's now studying which colored pigments could be produced by the leather-growing bacteria. 

In addition, the researchers and collaborators have just netted $2.5 million in funding from the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council that will support their efforts to use synthetic biology to further reduce waste in the fashion industry

Several startups have created plastic-free, plant-based leather using mushrooms, pineapple leaf fibers, and even cactus. While these leather alternatives are undoubtedly better than animal-based leather, they still require significant resources, and few have been widely adopted, per Good On You

The scientists' invention not only eliminates animal cruelty inherent in traditional leather production, but is also much less resource-intensive than plant-based options. 

Plus, the fact it doesn't require plastic means less waste clogging landfills, the oceans, and other natural areas, which ultimately benefits humans by reducing planet-warming pollution and, in turn, extreme weather events that contribute to numerous health problems and threaten communities worldwide. 

"Inventing a new, faster way to produce sustainable, self-dyed leather alternatives is a major achievement," professor Tom Ellis, the first author of the research, told Imperial. "Bacterial cellulose is inherently vegan. Its growth requires a tiny fraction of the carbon emissions, water, land use, and time of farming cows for leather. Unlike plastic-based leather alternatives, bacterial cellulose can also be made without petrochemicals and will biodegrade safely and non-toxically."

Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.

Cool Divider