Scientists Develop Method to Grow Wood in a Lab
American scientists say they have developed a way to grow wood material in a laboratory. The method could create different wood products indoors in a single process, greatly cutting the cost of production and reducing damage to the world’s forests.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrated a proof of concept by growing wood-like structures from cells taken from the leaves of a flowering plant.
The results were recently reported in a study appearing in the Journal of Cleaner Production. The lead researcher on the project was Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories.
He told MIT News the process is still in early development. But if it can be perfected, it could simplify and speed up the production of wood products.
Velásquez-García said said, the way we get these materials hasn’t changed in centuries and is very inefficient.
For example, the current process for making a wooden table can take many years. First, a tree has to grow. Then, it must be cut down, transported, processed, etc.
Velásquez-García says lab-grown wood could combine all those steps into one. If you want a table, then you should just grow a table.
The process is similar in some ways to lab produced meat, which is grown from live animal cells. But in the wood experiment, the MIT team collected live cells from the leaves of a zinnia plant.
The plant cells were then cultured and kept in an environment designed to activate and support growth.
Velásquez-García said, plant cells are similar to stem cells in the sense that they can become anything if they are induced to.
The experiment was carried out indoors, without soil or sunlight. During the process, the researchers used a mixture of two plant hormones that helped the cells grow a thick, strong wood-like structure. With further development, the researchers say they could use the same process to grow wood in specific shapes, such as a table or chair.
Ashley Beckwith is a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at MIT who led the research. She told MIT News she got the idea for the project while spending time on a farm. She said she wondered whether some of the inefficiencies present in agriculture could be improved through laboratory methods.
Beckwith said, I wanted to find a more efficient way to use land and resources so that we could let more arable areas remain wild. The experiment demonstrated that growing plant tissue in a lab could also have a big effect in agriculture.
Like with wood production, the process could reduce the time and effort related to traditional agriculture methods. It could also remove difficulties linked to weather and seasonality in farming, Beckwith said.
Such a lab-based farming method “promises to improve yields while reducing plant waste and competition for arable land,” the research study states.
David Stern is a plant biologist and president of the Boyce Thompson Institute. He was not involved in the study. He told MIT News one big question is whether the technology can be effectively scaled and remain economically competitive. Scaling up the method would require major financial and intellectual investments. And he said new issues would arise when bringing parts of forestry and agriculture into the lab.
Agriculture uses the sun’s energy through photosynthesis, and…natural rainfall. It does not require buildings, heat, or artificial light. His team will be working to improve the method, especially to learn how to better control the final materials that are produced. And, the researchers also want to carry out new experiments to see whether the same results can be reached with other kinds of plants.