MIT researchers have successfully grown plant tissue indoors - without the need for soil or sunlight. And they think actual wood could be next.
Led by PHD student Ashley Beckwith, the research group first extracted live cells from the leaves of a zinnia plant. After culturing the cells in a liquid growth medium, the team transferred them to a gel. The gel allowed the team to "tune" the cells. The additional of plant hormones auxin and cytokinin manipulated the cells into producing lignin, the organic polymer that lends wood its firmness.
After lignin was produced, the cells grew into a rigid wood-like structure.
“Plant cells are similar to stem cells in the sense that they can become anything if they are induced to," says Luis Fernando Velasquez-Garcia, co-researcher and co-author of the upcoming research paper.
Velásquez-García compares this work to additive manufacuring techniques like 3D printing. In this case, the plant cells themselves do the printing with the aid of the gel growth medium. The gel acts as a scaffold for the cells to grow in a particular shape.
“The idea is not only to tailor the properties of the material, but also to tailor the shape from conception,” says Velásquez-García. One day, he envisions growing a table, no two-by-fours or wood glue necessary.
The technology is far from market-ready. “The question is whether the technology can scale and be competitive on an economic or lifecycle basis,” says David Stern, a a plant biologist and President of Boyce Thompson Institute, who was not involved with the research. He adds that scaling up this approach “would take significant financial and intellectual investment,” likely from both government and private sources. 
Beckwith also anticipates 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.


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