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Is Lab-Grown Fur the Next Biomaterial Frontier?

First came lab-grown leather. Now, tissue-engineered fur wants a stab at the ballooning cruelty-free market.

The latter comes courtesy of Geneus Biotech, a Dutch startup whose fuzzy Furoid biomaterial seeks to displace farmed and wild-caught pelts. The process of making the animal-friendly fur isn’t dissimilar to culturing beef sans cow, researchers say. Working with scientists at the Free University of Amsterdam, Geneus Biotech developed a way to coax pluripotent stem cells to form follicles on a collagen-based scaffolding.

Still in its infancy, the technology requires a healthy round of investment before it can scale, let alone progress to market. But Geneus Biotech says it’s possible to use cells from different species, such as chinchilla, mink or fox, to generate doppelganger furs practically indistinguishable from the genuine articles. Furoid’s petri dish route also means scientists can incorporate DNA-based, anti-counterfeit markers to ensure authenticity, provenance and security. They can also tinker with the genetic code to tune the fiber’s color or pigmentation pattern, eliminating the need for chemical-laden dyes.

However feasible Furboid turns out to be, its materialization is emblematic of a zeitgeist shift toward animal-free animal products. The sea change has become more apparent après Covid-19, when up to 17 million Danish mink had to be culled because of fears that a mutated version of the coronavirus was jumping from animals to humans. In June, the Dutch and Austrian governments called on the European Commission to permanently end fur farming in the bloc because of welfare, ethics and health concerns for both humans and animals.

“Furoid’s intention fits in with the recent attempts by cellular food companies to create foods such as caviar, foie gras and wagyu beef that are completely animal-friendly and can remove the dilemma between taste pleasure and guilt,” Geneus Biotech said in a statement.

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Geneus Biotech seeks to displace farmed and wild-caught pelts with its animal-friendly, lab-cultivated Furoid "fur."
Geneus Biotech developed a way to coax pluripotent stem cells to form follicles on a collagen-based scaffolding. Courtesy

Fur is quickly shedding whatever cachet it used to have in the eyes of scores of Western consumers. A survey published last month by the Vegan Society found that 61 percent of Britons believe the use of fur is cruel, while 33 percent see it as outdated. But faux fur is typically derived from fossil fuels, which can pose a quandary for people who also wish to consume fashion more sustainably. Alternatives cultivated by white coats or made using wood-pulp “fluff” could fill that values breach as everyone—from Canada Goose to Saks Fifth Avenue to the entire country of Israel—turns its back on fur from critters.

“For decades, if not centuries, people have justified this cruelty by saying ‘but people need to be clothed and stay warm,’” Geneus Biotech said. “Sure, there is a certain validity to that argument, but today we can resolve the issue of personal warmth and fashion without causing harm to any animals.”