Printing Better Plants

Excerpt from original article – Seeding the Next Generation of Plant Science at NC State

Could 3D-printed plants unlock a revolution in plant design — and help us keep pace with the world’s growing population?

Ross Sozzani’s, plant biologist, interest in exploring 3D-printing technology led her to Tim Horn, an assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering and Director of Research at NC State’s Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics.

In 2015, the two researchers launched a collaborative project with a specific goal in mind.

“We were seeking a disruptive approach to redesign and engineer plants in a different way,” Sozzani says.

“We can 3D-print an organ or a heart. It’s not unforeseeable that we can 3D-print a plant.”

Their work was supported through a grant from the North Carolina Agricultural and Life Sciences Research Foundation in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and a National Science Foundation CAREER grant focusing on plant stem cell regulation.

Sozzani and Horn’s team isn’t printing entire plants. Instead, they start with a plant’s building blocks: stem cells. Over time, those cells give way to roots or shoots and eventually, a fully formed plant.

Traditional 3D printers construct an object by laying down successive layers of materials, all under the control of a computer. 3D bioprinting applies the same principles. But instead of printing with materials like metals or plastics, a bioprinter creates patterns using living cells as its ink.

Sozzani and Horn isolate stem cells, taken from the plant Arabidopsis, and precisely distribute those cells layer by layer to form a living, three-dimensional structure.

A 3D bioprinter in NC State’s Biomedical Partnership Center deposits plant stem cells in arrangements determined by a computer.
A 3D bioprinter in NC State’s Biomedical Partnership Center deposits plant stem cells in arrangements determined by a computer.

They’re essentially creating a plant’s blueprint. And the arrangement of the stem cells within the structure is key. Based on where they’re positioned, individual cells will go on to have different purposes. Some will form the plant’s vascular system, some will form the plant’s epidermis, and so on.

By using highly precise 3D bioprinters, researchers can position stem cells in the right place, at the right time.

“You can change the geometry of things in an extremely precise, high-resolution and automated manner,” Sozzani says.

Now, her team is working to find out if they can use that process to engineer plants with specific, predefined traits.

The way Sozzani and Horn see it, it would work something like this: Using a 3D bioprinter, their team could deposit more of the stem cells that, for example, give rise to a plant’s vascular cells. Ideally, the presence of those extra cells would produce a plant with a larger vascular system, which would be more resilient during water shortages.

Watching Collaborations Blossom

As the project has evolved, Sozzani says she’s greatly benefitted from NC State’s diverse network of expertise.

Alongside Horn, she connected with Rohan Shirwaiker, an associate professor in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, to gain a better understanding of tissue engineering.

Her team of computational biologists can create a mathematical model that captures data about the arrangement of stem cells and then uses artificial intelligence to predict what kind of plant that arrangement might produce.

“You need an interdisciplinary approach to solve complex questions,” she says.

As of today, Sozzani’s project has been touched by researchers in electrical and computer engineering, additive manufacturing, veterinary medicine, biomathematics and beyond.

“The momentum that there is here — which is why I joined NC State — is really convergence in science,” she says. “To address complex problems, you need this converging research. Engineering tools and systems are necessary to meet an end goal that’s of societal and economic importance.”

Read the full article – Seeding the Next Generation of Plant Science at NC State