Why do we need to cut down trees when we can simply grow them? That’s the question that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) asked. In a new paper, the scientists detail how they’ve developed plant-based materials like wood and fibres by cultivating it in their lab – and this could help lighten our environmental footprint on the planet.
New research conducted by MIT scientists shows that we can grow structures out of plant cells in a lab. The study, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, proposes that certain plant tissues like wood and fibre can be lab-grown – the same way that food techs are now cultivating meat directly from animal cells as a sustainable protein solution.
“If you want a table, then you should just grow a table,” study co-author Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, principal scientist of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories at MIT, told campus paper MIT News Office.
Together with lead author and PhD student in mechanical engineering Ashley Beckwith and Jeffrey Borenstein, a biomedical engineer at nonprofit institution Draper Laboratory, Velásquez-García believes that lab-grown technology presents a solution to the unsustainable depletion of Earth’s resources.
I wanted to find a more efficient way to use land and resources so that we could let more arable areas remain wild, or to remain lower production but allow for greater biodiversity.Ashley Beckwith
After extracting cells from zinnia leaves, the team grew wood-like cells in the lab, without soil or sunlight. First culturing the cells in growth medium, they then moved the cells into a gel and encouraged them to grow into a wood-like structure using auxin and cytokinin, two types of plant hormones.
The scientists can even tweak or “tune” the levels of hormones, which controls the amount of lignin the cells produce, to determine how firm the final product will be.
“You can visually evaluate which cells are becoming lignified, and you can measure enlargement and elongation of cells,” explained Beckwith.
While the technology is still in its early stages and far from being market ready, the paper starts the conversation on novel ways to produce biomaterials, which could have a big impact on disrupting forestry and agriculture.
“The way we get these materials hasn’t changed in centuries and is very inefficient. This is a real chance to bypass all that inefficiency,” said Velásquez-García.
There’s an opportunity here to take advances in microfabrication and additive manufacturing technologies, and apply them to solve some really significant problems in the agriculture arena.Jeffrey Borenstein
“I wanted to find a more efficient way to use land and resources so that we could let more arable areas remain wild, or to remain lower production but allow for greater biodiversity,” added Beckwith.
Describing the innovation as “unchartered territory”, the researchers recognise that there still remains many technological and scientific hurdles before lab-grown plant materials can be a reality. Among some of the key obstacles they anticipate include whether this can be applied to different plant species, and how to scale-up production – a similar obstacle that cell-based alternative protein startups face.
Nonetheless, co-author Borenstein believes that this is only the beginning. “There’s an opportunity here to take advances in microfabrication and additive manufacturing technologies, and apply them to solve some really significant problems in the agriculture arena.”
Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.