Lab-grown plant tissue may ease environmental toll

MIT researchers have started growing structures made of wood-like plant cells in a lab, hinting at the possibility of more efficient biomaterials production.

The researchers have proposed a way to grow certain plant tissues, such as wood and fiber, in a lab. Still in its early stages, the idea is akin in some ways to cultured meat — an opportunity to streamline the production of biomaterials. The team demonstrated the concept by growing structures made of wood-like cells from an initial sample of cells extracted from zinnia leaves.

While that’s still a long way from growing a table, the work provides a possible starting point for novel approaches to biomaterials production that ease the environmental burden of forestry and agriculture.

“The way we get these materials hasn’t changed in centuries and is very inefficient,” says researcher Velásquez-García. “This is a real chance to bypass all that inefficiency.”

There are a number of inefficiencies inherent to agriculture — some can be managed, like fertilizer draining off fields, while others are completely out of the farmer’s control, like weather and seasonality. Plus, only a fraction of the harvested plant is actually used for food or materials production.

The researchers anticipate challenges in growing plant tissues at large scales, such as facilitating gas exchange to the cells. The team hopes to overcome these barriers through further experimentation and eventually build production blueprints for lab-grown products, from wood to fibers.

The paper will be published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Image credit: Vadim Gromov via Unsplash

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