Plastics, Metals and Composite Materials Grown By Nanotrees - New Technology

Researchers at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Information Technologies in Poland are working on the development of trees that don’t produce wood but make plastic, metals, metal alloys and composite materials.

This is science that goes far further than genetic engineering. Genetic engineering modifies organisms that already exist, these organisms will be entirely designed by man and are expected to be grown commercially around 2030.

Just as humans and animals are able to produce materials such as bone, horn, skin and hair, these artificial organisms will be able to produce materials of predetermined chemical composition. The materials may be new and advanced materials or ones available today. The difference will be that they will be available in large quantities at relatively inexpensively.

The raw materials are commonly available in present day garbage dumps and industrial waste. The ‘roots’ of the nanotrees will be able to harvest the elements in the decaying waste sites of the 20th century.

The nanotrees will also be designed to split into the required planks, sheets, wires or other shape formats upon maturation of the plant. This is particularly important for extremely hard materials as it will minimise or eliminate difficult post harvest machining. Waste products such as the piles of sawdust produced when current timber boards are cut will be a thing of the past.

How it will work is relatively simple but difficult to achieve. Just as we are familiar with how computers run programs to produce an end calculation, organisms use DNA as the program and the living cell is the operating system. The end result is the growth of particular chemical compounds in the form of new cells. Genome mapping is complete so we know how these biological programs work. What is needed now is knowledge of how the operating systems synthesise base compounds into larger tissue structures.

Once these cellular chemical transformations are understood, the door is opened to the synthesis of new genes linked to artificial DNA strands. When combined with the appropriate chemical system, the processes will arrange selected atoms in the required manner to produce the desired material.

Due to the material being generated completely artificially, the colours of nanoplants will be completely different to natural ones. They will take their energy from the waste materials they are planted in and have no need for photosynthesis and therefore no requirement to be any shade of green. They’ll also look different as the plants will not need leaves and subsequently not require branches.

As the plants are completely artificial, they pose no threat to existing plants through hybridisation. Their different DNA would mean they are completely incompatible. Nanoplants can also be engineered to be completely sterile.

It is envisaged that nanoplants will not compete with current agricultural lands as they will be designed to utilise barren, polluted and industrial land that is otherwise considered toxic or unsuited to traditional development or farming practices. The nanoplants themselves are expected to be based upon carbonic structures (most likely fullerenes) and have rootstock that, after death or maturity, can be collected and destroyed by burning or left to compost naturally like normal plants.

Posted 4th February 2004

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