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Researchers make breakthrough in lab that could revolutionize home furnishings: 'There is a lot of potential to expand this'

Going forward, the researchers plan to study other species and further refine and develop their processes.

Going forward, the researchers plan to study other species and further refine and develop their processes.

Photo Credit: iStock

The furniture of the future might be lab-grown thanks to a breakthrough at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

In May 2022, the university announced that researchers discovered how to grow wood-like material around 100 times faster than it takes for a tree to reach maturity, potentially creating a path toward limiting deforestation, as well as waste and harmful pollution from manufacturing.  

"There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures," Ph.D. graduate Ashley Beckwith, the lead author of the study, said in the press release by MIT News. 

To produce the material, the researchers used cells from the common zinnia, a type of summer flower. They grew the cells in a liquid medium for two days before moving them to a nutrient-packed, hormone-infused gel mixture.

"In the human body, you have hormones that determine how your cells develop and how certain traits emerge. In the same way, by changing the hormone concentrations in the nutrient broth, the plant cells respond differently," Beckwith explained

In order to determine the final shape of the structure, scientists put the gel solution into a 3D printer and left the modified cells to incubate in the dark for three months. Upon examination, the scientists discovered that high hormone levels produced a denser plant material. 

As Beckwith pointed out to MIT News, trees are an essential part of regulating global temperatures, so she is optimistic that her team's research could help cut down on deforestation, which also contributes to biodiversity loss.

Despite the need and international commitments to protect our forests, the World Resources Institute found that the rate at which we have been losing trees is accelerating. In 2022, tropical primary forest loss was "the equivalent of losing 11 [soccer] fields of forest per minute." 

The furniture industry is the third-largest user of wood after the construction and paper sectors, according to the National Wildlife Federation, but a survey cited by the outlet found that 97% of people polled were interested in purchasing more planet-friendly products. 

Many brands are already using sustainable and reclaimed materials in their decor, and upcycling old furniture is a growing trend

The scientists at MIT, meanwhile, believe that experimenting with "a true wood-forming plant," as described in their study published by the journal Materials Today, could ultimately lead to tree-free wooden objects such as tables, desks, or walls. 

"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 is going to serve some purpose, there are mechanical expectations to consider. This process is really amenable to customization," senior author Luis Fernando Velásquez-García told MIT News. 

Going forward, the researchers plan to study other species and further refine and develop their processes, including by examining how various genetic and chemical factors impact cell growth. 

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