When stem cells come up in conversation, the first association that leaps to mind are medical breakthroughs. Stem cells are rebuilding organs and curing autoimmune disorders. They’re doing all sorts of medical miracles so typically we don’t consider uses beyond that limited scope. Though, really, why would we consider such a thing? Well, humans aren’t the only ones with stem cells. Of course, animals have them but so do plants. So, in theory, stem cells should be able to make things like wood, right?
That’s actually completely correct. Scientists have discovered that they can create wood from stem cells. The process itself is a bit more technical than just those bare bones, but the facts don’t change. At the heart of the matter, we have learned to artificially create wood. This opens up a lot of doors, but we should first figure out how exactly this is possible.
Bifacial Stem Cells
In all wood-type plants exists a cambium. The cambium is a layer of tissue containing stem cells responsible for creating more cells of the tree. These stem cells create two different types of cells: xylem and phloem. Xylem is the wood itself while phloem is bast which is a useful fibre. Unfortunately, we’re still not totally clear on how exactly the cambium works. What we do know is what’s inside it.
Because the stem cells in the cambium are able to produce two, sometimes three different types of cells, they were referred to as bifacial. “These bifacial stem cells produce cells bidirectionally, with wood cells growing inward and bast cells outward,” says the University of Heidelberg. With the cambium located directly beneath a tree’s bark, we can visibly see which direction the stem cells are building on to the plant.
Professor Thomas Greb, head of the Developmental Physiology research group at the Centre for Organismal Studies in Heidelberg, conducted his team to see the process happening in real-time. The team induced fluorescent proteins into the cambium, which allowed them to view the cell making process and realize which types of stem cells were creating different aspects of the plant. Greb’s team were the first to view bifacial stem cells and see them work.
While Greb and his team were invaluable for greater understanding about plant stem cells, they weren’t the first to consider that bifacial stem cells in the cambium were possible. Actually, a botanist 150 years ago by the name of Karl Gustav Sanio was the first to theorize about this process. In his paper about this topic, Greb said that Sanio “postulated the existence of one single stem cell in each radial cell file, which alternates between the production of xylem and phloem precursors.”
Sanio earned his Ph.D. in 1858 in science and medicine from the University of Königsberg. It was later in life that he studied the development of cork and made his discovery of how plant stem cells behaved in the cambium. Later, while studying the annual rings in Scotch pine trees, he theorized about bifacial stem cells within the cambium itself. In modern times, Sanio’s coined terms and theories are still popularly accepted and used, hence why Greb and his team undertook a task they already believed to be true.
What This Means for Stem Cells
Growing wood from stem cells may sound like something no one really asked for. It’s certainly neat, but what’s the point? Well, there are a few huge steps this discovery makes. Now that we know the process and can work on replicating it, our options have suddenly opened up.
Uses for Artificially Grown Wood
Deforestation is a big problem for the environment all over the world. Being able to make wood artificially will cut down on some of this production, though certainly not all of it. Regardless, the prospect of lab grown wood means a lot of money for the construction industry, not to mention products like paper.
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Like any good business, money is the primary motivator for creating new innovations. If the world were to suddenly switch to using lab grown wood in all areas, then there would be a lot less of a need to cut down trees en masse. Still, trees will be cut to make room for people and forestry land exists to regrow trees, but the scale this could have on the environment is still huge.
Uses for Bifacial Stem Cells
Wood is great and everything but consider the functions of the cell itself. Bifacial stem cells are called as much because they can create more than one type of cell while active. Naturally-occurring human stem cells can only create one type of cell at a time for the entire life-cycle of the cell. This means that a stem cell which is programmed to repair a pancreas can only repair a pancreas.
However, with bifacial stem cells, we can potentially program stem cells to do more than one action at the same time or at least be able to switch it up during their life-cycle. There are a lot of obstacles in the way of this potential theory. For one, host bodies often reject stem cells if they aren’t from themselves or an extremely close relative, and we already know putting a tree’s stem cell in a human being will definitely not work. If we can figure out how to create our own multi-faced stem cells, we can then tackle the problem of programming them to do different things at once without conflict. This is an extremely long road but a possible one in the future.
Uses for Other Stem Cells
If we can artificially create wood in a lab from a plant’s stem cells, what else can we make? Lab grown meat has been a popular topic among a lot of different groups, particularly for those who stand for animal rights and those who want to eradicate world hunger. Using stem cells to create meat products is one thing, but now we could possibly create fruits and vegetables, too.
Plants also have a lot to do with medicine. While a lot of medicines are artificially created from chemicals, anyway, many start with a plant of some form. Medicines could not only drop in value but actually be readily available world-wide. The point, all organic matter seems to have some type of stem cell to grow from. Therefore, by understanding and harnessing the power of these stem cells, we can create any organic matter we want.
What the Future Could Hold
Creating all of this from stem cells still comes with ethical obligations even when they’re not embryonic. After all, this is the dream of medieval alchemists everywhere, to create something from almost nothing. There’s a power trip that’s more than likely going to come with our progress in stem cell research. At the same time, our populations are expanding. Creating food, medicine, cloths, and building materials from stem cells could be the next leap for humanity as we know it.
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