Ears of apples? The promises of bio-engineers scare and delight at the same time

For the sake of breakthrough, science draws inspiration from everywhere. Adhesive plate with bacteria gave us the first antibiotic – penicillin. The combination of yeast with a platinum electrode under voltage gave us a powerful chemotherapeutic drug – cisplatin. Dr. Andrew Pelling from the University of Otttava draws his radical ideas from the science fiction classic Little Shop of Horrors. In particular, he likes the main antagonist of the film: the cannibal plant Aubrey-2.

This is something like a plant with mammalian traits, Pelling told an Exponential Medicine conference in San Diego this week. “So we started to ask ourselves: can it be grown in a laboratory?”

Pelling’s ultimate goal, of course, is not to revive a sci-fi monster. Instead, he wants to understand whether ordinary plants can provide the necessary structure to replace human tissues.

The flowering of mechanobiology

Growing a human ear from apples may seem like a strange process, but Pelling’s starting point is that the fibrous entrails are strikingly similar to the microenvironment in which bioengineering human tissues are commonly grown in laboratories.

For the manufacture of ear replacements, for example, scientists usually cut out or print on a 3D printer hollow support structures from expensive biocompatible materials. Then they sow human stem cells into this structure and painstakingly supply it with a cocktail of growth factors and nutrients, prompting the cells to grow. Ultimately, after weeks and months of incubation, the cells spread and differentiate into skin cells in the forests. The result is a bioengineering ear.

The problem is that the entry threshold is very high: stem cells, growth factors and materials for forests are all expensive to buy and difficult to produce.

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But are these components really necessary?

“We often think of biology through the lens of the genome or biochemistry,” says Pelling. But cells and tissues are living components – they stretch, contract and shift, producing mechanical forces that act on each other.


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