Today’s Solutions: January 19, 2022

We’ve written a whole lot about cell-cultured meat grown in a lab, but today we’re here to tell you about an entirely different lab-grown endeavor: lab-grown wood. In an attempt to mitigate the environmental harm of the logging industry, scientists at MIT are growing wood-like plant tissue from cells extracted from the leaves of a zinnia plant without using soil or sunlight.

With this tissue, the goal is to stimulate it in such a way that it grows into fully-formed wood objects such as a table. In short, the scientists want to rapidly produce wood in a lab that would typically take decades to grow in nature. “

The plant cells are similar to stem cells,” said Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories. “They have the potential to be many things.”

To produce lab-grown meat, scientists produce isolated tissues grown from extracted animal cells in a bioreactor, which eliminates the need to raise an entire animal. The idea is similar with lab-grown wood, with the scientist claiming it is actually easier and cheaper to grow plant cell cultures when compared to animal cell cultures.

Although we still lack many details about the process, the MIT scientists say it is possible to “tune” the plant cells into whatever shape they decide, which would save a lot of agricultural waste.

“Trees grow in tall cylindrical poles, and we rarely use tall cylindrical poles in industrial applications, so you end up shaving off a bunch of material that you spent 20 years growing and that ends up being a waste product.” said Ashley Beckwith, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student.

With lab-grown wood, you could essentially grow structures that are more practical and efficient, such as rectangular boards or even an “entire table that doesn’t need to be assembled.”

Although the work is still in its very early stages, the scientists hope the process could eventually help accelerate our shift away from plastics and other non-biodegradable materials toward materials that can break down in nature.

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