On this site I have repeatedly mentioned the efforts of many companies to create meat in the laboratory (already 3 years ago), or XNUMX cups milk: even honey. Processes that, at least according to their creators, consume fewer resources and have a lower environmental impact.
The MIT researchers will soon publish a paper describing a proof of concept of laboratory-grown plant tissues, such as wood and fibers, using a similar approach. Research is in its infancy, but it is a great vision. The idea is to avoid billions of felled trees, and "cultivate" biomaterials rather than snatch them from the planet.
To make a table you need wood. To make wood in the laboratory, no trees felled
Consider a normal wooden table. Over the years, one or more trees have converted sunlight, minerals, and water into leaves, wood, bark, and seeds. When they reached a certain size, they became felled trees and were transported to a sawmill to become lumber. The lumber was then transported to a factory or joinery where it was cut, shaped and assembled. How many trees cut down!
Now imagine the whole process happening at the same time and place.
A wood grown in the laboratory, without felled trees, only with the fibers that are needed at the moment (without seeds, leaves, bark or roots). A wood that can be manipulated in advance to have desired properties, and molded directly into shapes: for example a kitchen table. Stop for “native” wood, green light for laboratory “cultivated” wood in the laboratory.
Wood in the laboratory: little waste, little pollution. Zero trees felled.
Obviously, the technique would not be limited to one table. Other products could be made, with other biomaterials. In theory, and on a large scale, the process would be more efficient, less expensive and would save many forests. The farewell to the felled trees would be global.
This is the vision. But first, researchers need to figure out if it's even feasible.
The lead author of the study is a PhD student in mechanical engineering from MIT. Is called Ashley Beckwith.
Ashley says she was inspired by her time on a farm: from an engineer's perspective, a world full of inefficiency.
He's right. After all, time and seasons are beyond our control. We use the land and resources to grow whole plants, but we only use bits of them for food or materials. Billions of trees felled with a gigantic dispersion.
I wanted to find a more efficient way to use land and resources so that we could let more arable land remain wild, or to maintain lower production but allow for greater biodiversity.
Ashley Beckwith, MIT
To make a table (wooden in the laboratory) you need a flower
To test the idea, the team took cells from the leaves of a zinnia plant and fed them with a liquid growth medium. After the cells grew and divided, the researchers placed them in a "mold" of gel and immersed the cells in hormones.
You may be wondering what zinnia cells, which are a small flowering plant, have to do with wood and felled trees.
Well, as mentioned, their properties can be "regulated" like stem cells to express the desired attributes. The hormones auxin and cytokinin caused the zinnia cells to produce lignin, the polymer that makes wood solid.
By adjusting their hormonal knobs, the team was able to regulate lignin production. The gel "mold", a real structure, then induced the cells to grow into a particular shape.
Furniture to grow
"The idea is not only to adapt the properties of the material, but also to adapt its shape from conception," he says Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, co-author of the paper with Ashley Beckwith.
Velásquez-García's laboratory works with 3D printing technology and sees the new technique as a kind of additive manufacturing, in which each cell is a printer and the gel scaffold directs their production.
Although it's still early days, the team believes this study demonstrates that plant cells can be manipulated to produce a biomaterial with properties suitable for a specific use.
It obviously takes a lot more work to take the idea beyond the proof of concept.
Researchers now need to understand whether what they have learned can be adapted to other cell types. The "hormonal knobs" can differ from species to species.
Additionally, scaling solves the problem of felled trees, but requires solving problems such as maintaining a healthy gas exchange between cells.
All normal. Early research answers the fundamental question: is this idea worth investigating? Key questions such as cost and scalability are often left unanswered at this stage.
It also happened with meat
The first experiments with lab-grown meat, for example, were incredibly expensive and lacking key properties. The first lab-grown hamburger famously cost a few hundred thousand dollars but lacked the fat (tasty) chunks of a traditional ground beef burger. It wasn't ready in terms of cost or quality.
In the following years, investments and interest have grown and costs have decreased. Now it's not that ridiculous to imagine lab-grown meat at your local grocery store or restaurant. Just last year, Singapore was the first country to approve lab-grown meat for commercial consumption.
Bioengineering and production, roads destined to meet
Whether this particular vision of wood without felled trees garners support or not, seeing cells as miniature factories is nothing new.
Increasingly, the worlds of bioengineering and manufacturing meet. Engineered cells are already being put to work in industrial contexts.
Gianluca Riccio, born in 1975, is the creative director of an advertising agency, copywriter and journalist. He is affiliated with Italian Institute for the Future, World Future Society and H +, Network of Italian Transhumanists. Since 2006 he directs Futuroprossimo.it, the Italian resource of Futurology.
Futuroprossimo.it is an Italian resource of futurology opened since 2006: every day news about the near future. Scientific discoveries, medical research, prototypes, concepts and predictions about the future for free.
Gianluca Riccio, copywriter and journalist - Born in 1975, he is the creative director of an advertising agency, he is affiliated with the Italian Institute for the Future, World Future Society and H +, Network of Italian Transhumanists.