This Wood Grown in a Lab Could Cut Deforestation, With Furniture Made From Plant Cells

As if lab-grown meat wasn’t a head turner, a group of scientists at MIT are plotting lab-grown wooden furniture.

Wood-like cells from zinnia leaves, MIT

The two projects are nearly identical, made by cultivating cells to divide and multiply into forms outside of their parent phylum, and the proof-of-concept study is a powerful first step towards finding alternatives to forestry.

According to Velásquez-García and team, using a leaf from a zinnia, they were able to grow plant like tissues selectively, free from unnecessary organs. The researchers described in their corresponding paper how plant cells respond well to “tunability,” and that the scalable, land-free cultivation of plant material like wood for use in furniture making, for example, is very possible—and even easier than  what other scientists are doing with cell-cultured meat, the correct jargon for “lab-grown meat.”

“Despite considerable and early resource investment, (imagine the cost of buying, fueling, and operating logging trucks and roads alone) only a small fraction of the cultivated crop may be economically valuable at harvest,” write the authors in their paper, noting also that for the production of some natural fibers, as little as 2% to 4% of the harvested plant matter will be used.

Freshly-grown furniture

Aaron Burson

The strategy for cell-cultured trees, grown in the shape of a table or a rectangular board, is easier to scale, and could become cost-effective much faster than cell-cultured meat—as plants are simply easier to grow in this way.

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Speaking with Fast Company, Ashley Beckwith, an engineering Ph.D. student and co-author of the paper, explains the inefficiencies of relying on forested trees for lumber production.

“Trees grow in tall cylindrical poles, and we rarely use tall cylindrical poles in industrial applications,” she says. “So you end up shaving off a bunch of material that you spent 20 years growing and that ends up being a waste product.”

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What if instead you could spend that 20 years growing only furniture or clothing applicable fibers and shapes? Well the scientists haven’t yet grown a table from a petri dish, but their work is an important proof-of-concept that if widely adopted could lead to huge reductions in CO2 emissions from a number of sources.

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These could include fueling and driving heavy, low-range cargo trucks up logging roads at low speeds, as well as fueling and manufacturing the vehicles to construct the logging roads, and the manufacturing plants that make both, as well as the vehicles to transport that equipment there.

Then one must think of deforestation, a major contributor of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, as carbon that would otherwise be released through the Earth’s 1,000-year carbon cycle naturally is ripped from the ground as the trees are felled. Tree plantations could be left to age more naturally, retuning more of the carbon cycle into a natural state while attracting more wildlife in return.

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