Are test tube trees the answer to deforestation that we’ve been waiting for?

Housing 80% of the worlds land-based animals and working as a CO2 sponge for our atmosphere are just a couple of reasons forests are so important to our eco-system. The agricultural industry is the leading cause of deforestation in most countries and emits an enormous amount of carbon emissions whilst they’re at it. The major demand for meat, for furniture, for paper, is the fuel behind this deforestation crusade the industry is on, but lucky for us there are some exciting future possibilities that might solve this disaster after all! PhD student Ashley Beckwith, along with MIT researchers have been studying what some are calling ‘test tube trees’ in their lab, and are seeing promising results.

Ashley and her team published their paper Journal of Cleaner Production last year. This journal documents their vital tests and experiments of “Agricultural-free growth of plant materials” along with their findings. The process of these test tube trees is like that of lab-grown meat. They take a sample from a plant, multiply the cells and lead them to grow out of their regular parameters, then transfer them to a gel solution in a mould the shape they would like it to grow into, for example a table. Let’s take a moment to think about the positive impact that could have:

– Between 3.5 billion and 7 billion trees are cut down every year, predominantly from illegal logging and the agriculture industry. If trees were grown in labs the demand for real trees wouldn’t be as high, and important forest eco-systems can be left alone to regenerate from the harm already caused. When they heal it means we heal, as the more time these areas have to redevelop the more likely it is they will return to a more natural carbon state and effectively return to their natural carbon cycle.

– As little as 2% – 4% of the harvested plant matter in some productions make it to the final manufacturing floor. As trees don’t currently grow in the shape of a table or a chair, the shaping and building stages allow for far too much waste. This would be avoided completely as the plants would grow in the shape of the manufacturers desire.

– Lack of wastage of plant matter would not be the only positive of the growth of pre-shaped products. Think of all of the time, manpower, CO2 emissions, it takes to drive out to the forest in numerous large vehicles, operate large machinery to cut the trees down, transport the wood to warehouses, operate machinery to cut away the bits you won’t use, effectively wasting the twenty years it took for that tree to grow, then you have to actually build said product. By taking all that excess travel, all those excess machines, out of the equation, it won’t only be the forests cheering, but the rest of the environment too.

This solution still has a long way to go. The goal is to have the system work on a larger scale, but they said there are many factors to consider when branching out. One of their major concerns is how they are going to replicate the process on other plant species. Currently the leaves of a zinnia plant are the only species that have been used in these experiments. The team contemplates that as each plant species grows differently, the whole process will need to be altered.

This is a very exciting and impactful study and we here at SevenC’s will definitely be keeping an eye on their progress over the next few years. Let us know your thoughts on test tube trees in the comments below.

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