Making leather from carefully cultivated mushrooms
The leather in any pair of new shoes is probably over two years old. That’s the time it takes to raise a cow from birth, feeding, watering and caring for its health, before slaughtering it, skinning it and treating the hide to be cut and sewn into a pair of loafers. We can get meat from the slaughtered cow, but overall it’s a slow, resource-intensive process that contributes to climate change in a variety of ways, and basically sucks for the cow. Mushrooms can beat all that, plus come in customized colors.
You’ve probably never considered the mushrooms in your salad as a possible fashion statement, but it turns out they could be wearable if grown under the right conditions. A startup company in San Francisco called MycoWorks has found that growing common mushrooms under the right conditions can yield amazing results, producing 27 square feet of fungal leather in as little as two weeks. Their species of choice, Ganoderma lucidum, was selected because it was so common. These mushrooms have been used in a variety of contexts for thousands of years, which hopefully means there are no health-related surprises left to discover for people wanting to wear them as clothing.
The not-so-secret ingredient in G. lucidum, and other fungi, is a fiber called mycelium. This structure, which makes up the bulk of any mushroom, has been found to be durable yet flexible. By changing growing conditions and food sources, MycoWorks has been able to produce leathers with varying degrees of rigidity, texture and even color. Skipping tanning and other treatments normally required of animal skin, fungal leather can be grown in specific shapes, with patterned textures, and even in unusual colors like blue and purple. If a blue leather coat with a cross-hatch texture isn’t your thing, mycelium can also be coaxed to grow into a much harder structure, and MycoWorks is also looking into growing fungi as a tree-free wood for use in furniture.
Fashion considerations aside, one of the most compelling aspects of wearing mushrooms over cow-skins the resources necessary to produce them. An adult cow needs 27 pounds of hay a day to produce a large hide, plus water, space and other resources. Fungi, on the other hand, can get by on our leftovers, consuming wood shavings, corn cobs, and seed husks. Various oils are added to guide the texture of each fungal “hide,” but overall mushrooms are much cheaper to produce than a cow, on top of the environmental and ethical considerations. The catch at this point is mainly to scale things up, so that a cow’s worth of fungal leather can be produced in even less time, making production that much cheaper. Cowboys may not have as much to do if fungal leather takes off, but they’ll at least have access to more amazing boots than ever before.
Source: The Fungi in Your Future by Chau Tu, Science Friday