While lab-grown meat shows promise for sparing animals from slaughter, wood still comes entirely from trees that are cut down. That may not always be the case, though, as scientists are now working on growing it in a lab, too.
Led by PhD student Ashley Beckwith, researchers at MIT started by extracting live cells from the leaves of a zinnia plant. These were placed in a liquid growth medium, where they started reproducing. The resulting batch of cells was then transferred to a three-dimensional gel matrix, where they continued to proliferate.
The addition of the plant hormones auxin and cytokinin triggered the cells to produce lignin, which is an organic polymer that gives wood its firm consistency. This process allowed the scientists to ultimately grow a small wood-like rigid structure, in the shape of the gel matrix.
Additionally, by varying the levels of the two hormones, it was possible to control how much lignin the cells produced, thus letting the researchers tweak the structural characteristics of the “wood.”
Although the experiments conducted so far have been quite small-scale, it is hoped that the technology may one day allow wooden products such as tables to simply be grown as needed. Not only would no trees need to be cut down, transported or processed, but there would also be no need to saw pieces of lumber to length and then screw or glue them together.
The researchers are now investigating the feasibility of scaling the system up for practical use … and there are a lot of factors to be considered.
“One pending question is: How do we translate this success to other plant species?” says Dr. Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, who is overseeing the research. “It would be naive to think we can do the same thing for each species. Maybe they have different control knobs.”
A paper on the study was recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.