In an effort to provide an environmentally friendly and low-waste alternative, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered a tuning technique for producing woody plant material in the lab. Credit: Image courtesy of Luis Fernando Velázquez-Garcia, Ashley Beckwith et al

Every year, the world loses about 10 million hectares of forest – an area the size of Iceland – due to deforestation. At this rate, some scientists predict that the world’s forests may disappear in 100-200 years.

In an effort to provide an environmentally friendly and low-waste alternative, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered customizable techniques for creating wood-like plant material in a lab that could allow someone to “grow” a wooden product, such as a table, without having to cut down trees, process lumber, etc.

These researchers have now demonstrated that by adjusting certain chemicals used during growth processthey can accurately control the physical and mechanical properties of the resulting plant material, such as its stiffness and density.

They also show that using 3D bioprinting techniques, they can grow plant material in shapes, sizes and shapes that are not found in nature and that cannot be easily produced using traditional agricultural methods.

“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials exactly in the form you need, so you don’t have to do any subtractive production after it reduces energy and waste. There is great potential for expand it and develop three-dimensional structures, ”says lead author Ashley Beckwith, a recent Ph.D. graduate.

Although this study is still in its early days, this study demonstrates that laboratory-grown plant materials can be tuned to specific characteristics that may someday allow researchers to grow wood products with the exact characteristics needed for a particular application. for example high strength to support the walls of the house or certain thermal properties for more efficient space heating, explains senior author Luis Fernando Velazquez-Garcia, chief scientist at the Microsystems Technology Laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jeffrey Barenstein, a biomedical engineer and team leader at Charles Stark Draper’s lab, joins Beckwith and Velázquez-Garcia in the article. The study is published today in Materials today.

Planting cells

To begin the process of growing plant material in the laboratory, researchers first isolate cells from the leaves of young plants Zinnia elegans. The cells are grown in a liquid medium for two days, then transferred to a gel-based medium containing nutrients and two different hormones.

Regulation hormone levels At this stage in the process, researchers are able to adjust the physical and mechanical properties of plant cells that grow in this nutrient-rich broth.

“U The human body, you have hormones that determine how your cells develop and how certain traits appear. In the same way, by changing the concentration of hormones in the nutrient broth, plant cells react differently. By simply manipulating these tiny chemical amounts, we can cause quite dramatic changes in terms of physical results, ”says Beckwith.

In a sense, these cells of growing plants behave almost like stem cells – researchers can give them signals to tell them what to become, adds Velazquez-Garcia.

They use a 3D printer to squeeze the cell culture gel solution into a specific structure in a petri dish and allow it to incubate in the dark for three months. Even with that incubation periodThe researchers ’process is about two orders of magnitude faster than the time it takes for a tree to grow to maturity, Velazquez-Garcia says.

After incubation, the resulting cell material is dehydrated, and then the researchers evaluate its properties.

Wood characteristics

They found that lower hormone levels yielded plant material with more rounded open cells that had lower density, while higher hormone levels resulted in growth of plant material with smaller, denser cell structure. Higher hormone levels also yielded tougher plant material; researchers have been able to grow plant material with a storage modulus (hardness) similar to some natural wood species.

Another goal of this work is to study what is known as woodyness in these laboratory-grown plant materials. Lignin is a polymer that is deposited in the cell walls of plants, making them hard and woody. They found that higher hormone levels in the growth medium cause more lignification, resulting in plant material with more tree-like properties.

Researchers have also demonstrated that with the help of 3D bioprinting, plant material can be grown in the right shape and size. Instead of using a form, the process involves using a customizable computer-aided design file that is fed to a 3D bioprinter that brings the gel cell culture into a specific form. For example, they were able to grow plant material in the form of a tiny evergreen tree.

Research of this kind is relatively new, says Barenstein.

“This work demonstrates the power that technology at the intersection of technology and biology can bring to an environmental problem using advances originally developed for healthcare applications,” he adds.

The researchers also show that cell cultures can survive and continue to grow for months after printing, and that using a thicker gel to produce thicker structures of plant material does not affect the survival of cells grown in the laboratory.


“I think the real opportunity here is to be optimal with what you use and how you use it. If you want to create an object that will serve some purpose, there are mechanical expectations that need to be considered.” the process is really adjustable, ”said Velazquez-Garcia.

Now that they have demonstrated an effective redesign of this technique, researchers want to continue experimenting so they can better understand and control cell development. They also want to investigate how other chemical and genetic factors can control cell growth.

They hope to appreciate how their method could be transferred to a new species. Zinnia plants do not produce wood, but if this method were used to produce such a commercially important tree species as pine, the process would have to be adapted to this species, says Velazquez-Garcia.

Ultimately, he hopes this work can help motivate other groups to delve deeper into this area of ​​research to help reduce deforestation.

“Trees and forests are an amazing tool that helps us manage climate change, so the most strategic attitude to these resources will be a necessity of society in the future,” adds Beckwith.

Can laboratory-grown plant tissue alleviate environmental damage from logging and agriculture?

Additional information:
Ashley L. Beckwith et al., Physical, mechanical and microstructural characteristics of new, 3D-printed, customizable, laboratory-grown plant materials derived from Zinnia elegans cell cultures, Materials today (2022). DOI: 10.1016 / j.mattod.2022.02.012

This story was published by MIT News (, a popular site that covers news about research, innovation and training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Citation: Toward customizable wood grown in the laboratory (2022, May 25) obtained May 25, 2022 from

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