Growing wood in petri dish

Associate Professor David Leung in a plant tissue culture growth room at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury.

A researcher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand has won a government funding to explore the potential of 3D-printing live plant cells (bio-printing) to create synthetic wood.

Associate Professor David Leung is working on creating a new, sustainable industry for synthetic wood manufacture through 3D bio-printing live plant cells that could vastly reduce the need for tree harvesting.  

If successful the project, which will receive $255,000 over three years, would give the New Zealand manufacturing sector a new, sustainable biomaterial that goes a long way to realise the potential of 3D printing. 

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce has also recently announced that the University of Canterbury researcher’s 3D bio-printing project is one of the 10 ambitious seed projects to develop disruptive technology for the industry, and to be funded with $826,000 this year from the Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) National Science Challenge.

UC Biotechnology expert Assoc Prof Leung’s project – Enabling sustainable economic development with advanced additive manufacturing of wood – contains huge economic potential in harnessing the enabling 3D-printing technology in product manufacturing.

“Although challenging, there is potential to use live cells as an advanced manufacturing material in a yet-to-be invented, new industry,” Assoc Prof Leung said.

The principle of 3D-printing live plant cells (bio-printing) has recently been demonstrated with live green algal cells.

“It is possible that other types of plant cells, such as the wood-forming cells of eucalyptus trees, could be used as bio-printing materials. Hence, it is a potential, socially acceptable opportunity for sustainable economic development derived from native forests.”

The objective of this project is to manufacture a wood product (a non-living 3D structure) without the need for the destructive harvesting of trees.

“Live eucalyptus tree cells will be prepared specifically for bio-printing. They will be physiologically primed in a 3D structure in the biotech lab at the University of Canterbury, without any genetic modification, to be capable of responding to the appropriate triggers for transformation into a principal wood cell called a tracheid,” Assoc Prof Leung says.

“The changes in the cells will be studied in relation to the characteristic morphological features and chemical properties of tracheids using various microscopic, histochemical staining and fluorescence techniques.”

If successful this research would be among the most significant scientific advances towards the realisation of the full potential of 3D printing. The manufacturing sector would have a new, sustainable and advanced biomaterial for developing niche products in a New Zealand context.

Source: University of Canterbury