Lab Manufactured wood to eliminate deforestation

MIT researchers have developed structures of wood-like plant cells in a lab in a bid to minimize the enormous environmental burden of deforestation. 

Every year, humans cut down about 15 billion trees. Turning wood into tables to eat at and chairs to sit on, from the people who cut it down, to transport and distribution, and finally to the people who take the time to manufacture it, is a long and costly process.

Currently, it’s estimated that products extracted from wood are marketed for $631 billion in 2021 and are predicted to reach the mark of $900 billion by 2026. 

3D bioprinting has been a rising technique that takes tissues and organs and manufactures them in a controlled manner. This is done through an arrangement of the chemical elements that are saturated within the biological materials used, including biochemicals and bio cells. 

3D printing
Credit: Getty Images

The team at MIT accomplished an experiment that provided stem cell-like properties to regular plant cells. These wood-like plant tissues were grown in a lab without soil and sunlight, the things that wood usually needs. They took the leaves of a flowering plant called Common Zinnia (Zinnia Elegans) and removed the cells from it. Keeping the liquid in a medium for a few days before handling the plant cells, the researchers then applied a gel-based medium to enhance the cells with nutrients and hormones

Through the 3D printer, the researchers released the cell gel culture solution onto a dish, then carefully constructed its shape and left it for its incubation period in a dark room for three months. The lab-printed plant material didn’t just survive but it thrived at twice the rate of a naturally growing tree.

Researchers have successfully maneuvered the cells to grow through two plant hormones called auxin and cytokinin. Results indicated to the researchers that altering the hormonal concentration in the gel allowed them to control the outcomes of the physical and mechanical properties of the growing cells. By adjusting the proportions of the hormones within the gel, they were able to control the firmness of the wood.

They discovered that higher hormone proportions caused the growth of plant materials to be smaller yet with denser cell structures. It also would generate stiffer plant material and allow the researchers to grow plant material with a stiffness similar to more natural woods.

Leading researcher Beckwith evaluated the composition and structure of the final product through fluorescence microscopy. 

“You can visually evaluate which cells are becoming lignified, and you can measure enlargement and elongation of cells.” She states, exhibiting the idea that the ability to control plant cells optimizes them for being used for a specific purpose.

Plant Biologist and President of Boyce Thompson Institute weighed in on the research project. He believes that if this approach was to be maximized it “would take significant financial and intellectual investment, likely from both government and private sources”. 

Researchers at MIT suggest the 3D printing technique doesn’t produce any waste and thus would be better for the environment and the economy.