Wood is everywhere. Anywhere, really. Even in the offices of associations against deforestation: a global market worth 630 billion euros in 2021 alone. it will exceed € 900 billion in just 4 years. Okay, we all agree: reforestation alone will not help us heal all human damage, but do we really have to cut down every tree on the planet before we understand that we are killing ourselves?
A new solution promises an end to this vicious circle. What if we could "grow" wood with cellular agriculture, and use cultivated wood instead of cutting down trees? MIT confirmed this possibility, developing a technique that produces wood of any shape and size in the laboratory.
How did they do it?
In essence, MIT scientists have managed to give normal plant cells the same properties as stem cells. They extracted cells from the leaves of a flowering plant called Zinnia elegans, and then they kept them in liquid for a couple of days. In the next step, the researchers "enriched" these plant cells with nutrients and hormones.
After a while, these plant cells produced new plant cells. By modulating the dosage of hormones, the researchers also modulated the physical and mechanical characteristics of the newly grown cells. Higher levels of hormones, stiffer material.
According to the researcher Ashley Beckwith, who led the research, simply altering tiny amounts of these chemicals is enough to bring about significant changes in terms of physical results.
It goes to print: and without waste
Beckwith and her team were also able to 3D print custom designed structures from cultured plant cells, using a 3D bioprinting method. The experiment was conducted for three months, keeping the plant material produced in the laboratory in "incubation" in the dark. The cultivated wood stunned the researchers: not only did it survive, but it also is grown at twice the rate of a normal tree.
Excellent news also against waste, if you take into account that the processing of wooden furniture involves a loss of about 30% of the wood used. The bioprinting technique used at MIT does not generate any waste. Zero. No subtractive operations: in the future we could choose the shape of a chair, print it and stop. Not a single chip more.
When is the wood "grown" in the laboratory?
For now at MIT they have managed to show that this plant material can be grown in the laboratory and that its mechanical properties can be changed, but the research is still in its infancy. More studies and tests will be needed before the technique can be improved and used to "grow and print" the first furniture.
I can't wait for it to happen: every year we cut down 15 billion trees. Fifteen billion.
Each year, humans cull about 15 billion trees. A catastrophe that triggers a thousand problems related to climate change. If successful, this MIT "cultivated wood" will help us get rid of deforestation. Forever.