Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a method for creating plant tissues in a lab setting via bio-printing. The process starts by extracting host cells from a plant. Those cells are then allowed to grow in a liquid nutrient-rich medium until it’s time for the rudimentary plant cells to be shaped into whatever cell type is needed, such as wood or plant fibers.
This process is being referred to as ‘tuning’, which is done by applying certain hormones in varying amounts to the cells and guiding their growth in a gel medium. This is used as a sort of scaffolding. As stated by Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal scientist working on the project in the Microsystems Technologies Laboratories at MIT, “plant cells are similar to stem cells in the sense that they can become anything if they are induced to.”
While this research is still in its earliest stages, the implications are certainly exciting. Imagine being able to grow paper out of plant cells without ever having to cut down a single tree. There are far-reaching agricultural, production, and construction implications to this.
The ability to bio-print wood and wood-type mediums already formed for their specific use would drastically reduce waste and byproducts such as sawdust or offcuts. These can also potentially reduce the strain on the already heavily stressed forest biomes on our planet. While I’m not willing to say this is the answer to deforestation it does give me hope for a solution.
Bio-printing is the process by which propagated cells are layered onto the scaffolding to create a structure out of living tissue. It is used as a means of making organic but artificial structures, such as skin for grafting onto burns. While the outcome may be different for wood, the same basic method is applied: get propagated base cells, “tune” the cells to be the type of cell needed for the project, and print the cell in a 3D printer designed for bio-matter.
Over the last few years, science has come a long way. We now have lab-cultured meat that was never alive and grown from muscle cells, skin created from the cells of the person requiring the skin graft, and replacement body parts having a much lower rate of rejection. Now, it would seem we can also print plant tissue as well.
Bio-printing is a powerful tool for the creation of needed cell material. Apart from that, the time frame to grow trees is long, and wood base material is a significant cause of deforestation. The ability to grow just the part of the tree we need is not only a way of countering the damage caused by deforestation but it also makes production much faster. This also means more output and less lag between shipments. All of these things combined lead to a more efficient and stable supply chain.
Hope for the future
While the technology seems to be in its infancy stage, there is a great deal of hope for a better future hiding just around the bend. As a constant coffee drinker and someone who has been involved in rainforest preservation for years, I can’t help but feel that technologies like this are the way forward. I look forward to someday drinking a cup of bio-printed coffee grown from the cells of a coffee plant living happily in the middle of a forest somewhere instead of a farm. Only time will tell.
Photo credits: The featured image is only symbolic and has been taken by CDC. All other images have been provided by MIT for press usage.
Source: Daniel Ackerman (MIT News Office) / MIT News Office / (Nature)