Lynn Rothschild has short brown hair and smiley eyes. She cracks jokes about biology and microscopes with ease. Diana Gentry, her decades-younger Ph.D. student, loves classic video games and vegetarian cooking. She lives near Silicon Valley. The two colleagues have a funny banter, and have spent holidays together. But they share one unique goal.
They’re trying to 3D-print wood in space.
The Stanford University researchers have been working long hours honing a three-dimensional printing process to make biomaterials like wood and enamel out of mere clumps of cells. Pundits say such 3D bioprinting has vast potential, and could one day be widely used to transform specially engineered cells into structural beams, food, and human tissue. Rothschild and Gentry don’t only see these laboratory-created materials helping only doctors and Mars voyagers. They also envision their specific research – into so-called “synthetic biomaterials” – changing the way products like good-old-fashioned wooden two-by-fours are made and used by consumers.
Here’s their plan: Rothschild, an evolutionary biologist who works for NASA and teaches astrobiology at Stanford, and Gentry, her doctoral advisee who is trained in biology and mechanical engineering, are working with $100,000 they received last fall from the space agency’s Innovative Advanced Concept Program. They say they’re on track to prove their concept by October: a three-dimensional printing process that yields arrays of cells that can excrete non-living structural biomaterials like wood, mineral parts of bone and tooth enamel. They’re building a massive database of cells already in nature, refining the process of engineering select cells to make and then excrete (or otherwise deliver) the desired materials, and tweaking hardware that three-dimensionally prints modified cells into arrays that yield the non-living end products.
In short, your 3D printer could soon be your hardware store, your butcher, and your dentist.
“Cells produce an enormous array of products on the Earth, everything from wool to silk to rubber to cellulose, you name it, not to mention meat and plant products and the things that we eat,” Rothschild said. “Many of these things are excreted (from cells). So you’re not going to take a cow or a sheep or a probably not a silk worm or a tree to Mars. But you might want to have a very fine veneer of either silk or wood. So instead of taking the whole organism and trying to make something, why couldn’t you do this all in a very precise way – which actually may be a better way to do it on Earth as well – so that you’re printing an array of cells that then can secrete or produce these products?”
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