Lab-grown wood: Could scientists make better trees than nature?

Credit: MIT
Credit: MIT

Wood and other plant-based materials may be renewable resources, but obtaining usable forms typically requires lots of transportation, milling, and processing.

Now, a group of MIT researchers hopes to drastically trim these inefficiencies. The researchers grew wood-like plant tissue in the lab, which, if scaled up, could perhaps one day lead to the development of lab-grown wood, fiber, and other biomaterials aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of forestry and agriculture. Their work is described in a recent Journal of Cleaner Production paper.

“The hope is that, if this becomes a developed process for producing plant materials, you could alleviate some of [the] pressures on our agricultural lands. And with those reduced pressures, hopefully we can allow more spaces to remain wild and more forests to remain in place,” says Ashley Beckwith, the study’s lead author and a mechanical engineering PhD candidate at MIT.

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Lab-grown plant material wouldn’t depend on climate, pesticides, or arable land for cultivation. And producing only the useful portions of plants would eliminate discarded bark, leaves, and other excess matter, the researchers note. “The higher-level idea is about producing goods where it’s needed, when it’s needed,” says Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a study coauthor.

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