Could New Fungi-Based Leather Replace the Real Thing?

Scientists have found that new faux-leather textiles made from fungi look, feel, and are as durable as leather made from cows or synthetic fabrics, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. The research supports claims made by companies in Korea, Indonesia, and the United States that fungi-derived leather is a competitive, sustainable option for the clothing industry.

The new material uses agricultural and forestry byproducts, such as sawdust, to grow “chitinous polymers and other polysaccharides” that form into mats of mycelium, the underlying root networks of fungi. From there, the material is altered physically and chemically to visually resemble leather and exhibit comparable properties.

 Various fungi-leather products created by the companies MycoTech in Indonesia (photos a & c) and Bolt Threads Inc. in the United States (photos b & d).


“It feels a bit and smells a bit like mushroom, but it looks like a piece of old leather jacket,” Alexander Bismarck, a materials scientist at the University of Vienna and coauthor of the new study, told The New York Times.

According to the study, this fungal leather material is not only renewable and biodegradable, but it also does not depend on the livestock industry and eliminates the need for toxic tanning chemicals. It is part of an emerging market of ethically and environmentally responsible fabrics that fits into the circular economy, which aims to eliminate waste and promote the continual use of resources.

Another advantage of this type of leather is its ability to be customized and grown to specifications.

Companies like MycoWorks and Bolt Threads have been manufacturing and selling fungal leather products for several years at prices competitive with authentic leather goods. And costs are likely to drop as interest and manufacturing capacity increases.

“There’s already massive mushroom cultivation industries that are producing all kinds of mushrooms for the culinary market,” Mitchell Jones, a materialis scientists from the Vienna University of Technology and lead author of the study, told The New York Times. “The technology to mass produce mushrooms is already there.”

—Genevieve Tarino, September 2020