MIT scientists want to grow wood and fiber plant tissues in a lab

A group of researchers from MIT has proposed a way to grow certain plant tissues, including wood and fiber, in a lab. Their idea is in the early stages and is likened to cultured meat. Researchers see the ability to grow wood and fiber in a lab as an opportunity to streamline the production of biomaterials.

So far, the researchers have demonstrated the concept by growing structures made from wood-like cells extracted from zinnia leaves. The breakthrough is a starting point for new approaches to producing biomaterials that could ease the environmental burden of forestry and agriculture. One researcher on the project says the method of procuring wood materials for building items like furniture hasn't changed in centuries and is very inefficient.

Researcher Luis Fernando Velásquez-García believes in the future the easier solution would be to grow a table if you want one. He says the ability to grow wooden fiber in the lab is a chance to bypass all of the current system's inefficiency. Researchers on the project grew wood-like plant tissue indoor with no soil or sunlight.

They started with the zinnia plant by extracting live cells from its leaves and then cultured the cells in a liquid growth medium. The cells were able to metabolize and proliferate. The cells were transferred into a gel, and the researchers "tuned" them to grow into a rigid, wood-like structure using a mix of two plant hormones called auxin and cytokinin.

Varying those two hormones allowed the scientists to control lignin production, an organic polymer giving wood its firmness. Researchers were able to assess the cellular composition and structure of the final product using fluorescence microscopy. The process demonstrated that plant cells could be used in a controlled production process to optimize the material for a particular purpose.