Science

Scientists take a step closer to growing wood in a lab

Scientists take a step closer ...
A microscope image of the wood-like cells grown in a gel matrix
A microscope image of the wood-like cells grown in a gel matrix
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A microscope image of the wood-like cells grown in a gel matrix
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A microscope image of the wood-like cells grown in a gel matrix
A diagram of the process
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A diagram of the process

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."

A diagram of the process
A diagram of the process

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.

Source: MIT

5 comments
5 comments
TechGazer
Sounds silly to me. This process requires 'liquid growth medium'. Can they produce that with less environmental impact than maintaining a forest? Trees produce wood while also providing a host of other benefits while they're growing. Sustainable forestry practices seem to work.

This process might be useful someday on Mars, or on a city on Ganymede, with cheap fusion energy for providing 'growth medium'.
Bob Flint
Agree with TechGazer, trying to improve on nature, in a lab? At what rate, & costs to environment?
Looking around here in Canada we have vast untapped resources and forests that if left alone will take care of themselves, and the wildlife living amongst them.
michael_dowling
TechGazer: Yes,silly indeed. Good point on trees in their natural state - many animals get homes and food from real trees. They are harvested sustainably,so no need to make them in the lab. Meat,on the other hand,is a different kettle of fish entirely.
Trylon
@Bob Flint, the whole point of this is that vast untapped resources and forests CAN be left alone if this pans out. So what exactly is your objection? And do you know how much waste is involved in processing trees into lumber, between cutting, milling, planing, turning in lathes, etc.? Think about all the bark and branches which are too thin to be useful. How much lumber is wasted because it has too many knots and other flaws?
toni24
When they an grow artifiial wood with the strength of Iron woods like green heart and Lignum vitae I will be impressed