Material Chemists Demonstrate Potential to Produce Sustainable Fabrics from Fungi

An international research team, under the guidance of material chemists Alexander Bismarck and Mitchell Jones from the University of Vienna, has demonstrated the significant ability of renewable sustainable fabrics obtained from fungi.

Image Credit: Rattiya Thongdumhyu/

The study was described in a review article published recently in the Nature Sustainability journal.

Normally, conventional leather and its substitutes are derived from synthetic polymers and animals. Leather can be said to be a co-product resulting from meat production. However, the process of leather production and livestock farming are increasingly believed to be environmentally unfriendly and ethically questionable (for example, emissions of greenhouse gas, use of dangerous substances in the tanning process, and deforestation for grazing).

Chemicals extracted from fossil fuels are also used for producing synthetic leather materials from plastics such as polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

This is where leather-like materials from fungi come into play, which, in general, are CO2 neutral as well as biodegradable at the end of their life span.

Alexander Bismarck, Material Chemist, Faculty of Chemistry, University of Vienna

Bismarck also holds a visiting professorship at Imperial College London.

Growth of Fungal Mycelium

Scientists can produce leather substitutes from fungi by upcycling cost-efficient forestry and agricultural by-products (for example, sawdust). These by-products act as a feedstock for the growth of fungal mycelium, which makes up a mass of extended tubular structures and denotes the vegetative growth of filamentous fungi.

Within two weeks, the fungal biomass can be harvested and treated both chemically and physically (for example, cross-linking and pressing).

As a result, these sheets of fungal biomass look like leather and exhibit comparable material and tactile properties.

Alexander Bismarck, Material Chemist, Faculty of Chemistry, University of Vienna

Bismarck is also the head of the department.

The first biotech firms are already commercializing materials that are obtained from fungi.

Generally, leather substitute materials obtained from fungi comprise fully biodegradable chitin (which serves as a stabilizer in the material) and also contain other polysaccharides such as glucans.

In their own research works, Alexander Bismarck and Mitchell Jones (currently affiliated with the Vienna University of Technology) earlier performed studies using fungal species, like the bracket fungus Daedaleopsis confragosa and the white button mushroom Agaricus bisporus, to make paper as well as foam-like construction materials for applications such as insulation.

Considerable Potential as a Leather Substitute

In the new review article, the researchers investigated the sustainability of synthetic and bovine leathers and presented a summary of the initial developments and commercialization of leather substitutes obtained from fungal species.

The authors stated that one of the major challenges in the creation of fungi-derived leather-like materials is yet to achieve consistent and uniform mycelium mats, “exhibiting uniform growth and consistent thickness, color and mechanical properties.”

So far, the production of such materials was mainly fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit. As a raw material for leather substitutes, fungi offer a low-cost, socially, and environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic and bovine leathers and are of specific interest to sustainability-conscious companies and consumers and also to the vegan community, wrote the researchers.

Substantial advances in this technology and the growing number of companies that are producing fungi-biomass-based leather alternatives suggests that this new material will play a considerable role in the future of ethically and environmentally responsible fabrics.

Study Researchers, University of Vienna

Journal Reference

Jones, M., et al. (2020) Leather-like material biofabrication using fungi. Nature Sustainability.


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