Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States, have found a way to grow wood in the laboratory, without using either soil or sunlight. The idea of reproducing cells from parts of organisms in the laboratory without compromising the entire organism can be the starting point for the production of wood without the need to cut down trees.
Speaking to the Naga Munchetty program from BBC 5 Live, lead author of the study, Ashley Beckwith, from MIT in Cambridge, USA, said the idea of selectively reproducing plant tissues, without having to use the entire plant in the process, started with the cultivation of small structures extracted from zinnia , a plant in the daisy family that is easy to grow and abundant throughout America.
To obtain the expected result, the live zinnia cells were cultured in a liquid medium, and stimulated to metabolize and reproduce. Then, the cells were transferred to a gel and subjected to a kind of “tuning” with growing more rigid and wood-like structures, which was done with the use of two plant hormones: auxin and cytokine.
The balance of hormonal variation is crucial to control the cellular production of lignin, a complex organic polymer that unites cellulose fibers and gives firmness to the wood. Finally, the team evaluated the cell composition and structure of the final product using fluorescence microscopy. This allowed us to know which cells were lignified so that their growth and elongation could be measured.
Source: Beckwith et al. / DisclosureSource: Beckwith et al.
How long does it take to create a laboratory table?
Published in the scientific journal Journal of Cleaner Production, with a launch date of March 15, 2021, the study concluded that plant cells can be used in a controlled production process, resulting in a material optimized for a certain purpose.
What is sought here is to increase the size of the structures produced. Furthermore, the process is similar to 3D printing, with the difference that the plants themselves print with the aid of a growth medium inside the gel. The gelatinous material then acts as a support for cell growth.
When questioned by the BBC that the time to grow enough wood to make a coffee table would be a very slow process, taking a few months, Beckwith replied that “this is much faster than a tree that can take 20 years to grow”.
Applications for laboratory wood
Source: Aaron Burson / ReproductionSource: Aaron Burson
The technology can be used to create pieces or planks of wood, which would be cut and shaped into a piece of furniture. According to the senior author of the project, currently “we dedicate a lot of resources to growing whole plants, when all we really need is a very small portion of the plant”.
This resolves a crucial issue, which is a growing demand for plant-based products, such as food, infrastructure materials, consumer goods and crops for fuel production, while arable land has been shrinking over time, highlighted Beckwith.
The technology created is not yet ready for commercial use, but the team of scientists is very excited. The expansion of the process will require investments in research from the government or private sources. The team also warns that this is not a unique process, as each species of plant has its “unique control button”.