Wood without trees | MIT Technology Review

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Like meat production, forestry and agriculture can take a heavy toll on the environment. Now, a team at MIT has come up with a way around that by growing certain plant tissue in the lab – an idea a bit like cultured meat.

Researchers, in the group of Luis Fernando Velásquez-García of Microsystems Technology Laboratories, cultivated wood-like plant tissue indoors, without soil or sunlight. They started with a zinnia, by extracting living cells from its leaves and growing them in a liquid growth medium to metabolize and proliferate.

The Zinnia-based material grows into a tree-like bio-printed structure, illustrating that it is possible to cultivate materials in controllable forms.

ASHLEY BECKWITH

Then they transferred the cells to a gel and “tuned them,” says Velásquez-García: “Plant cells are similar to stem cells in that they can become anything if induced into them.” By varying the levels of two hormones in the gel, the researchers controlled cellular production of lignin, a polymer that gives wood its firmness. The gel itself acted as a scaffold to encourage cells to develop into a particular shape.

Although the technology is far from ready for the market, the job indicates a possible method to produce biomaterials with a much smaller environmental footprint.

“The way we get these materials has not changed for centuries and is very inefficient,” says Velásquez-García. “It’s a real chance to get around all this inefficiency.”

In other words: “If you want a table, you just have to make a table bigger.”

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