How Does This Man Use Apples to Grow Body Parts?

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How Does This Man Use Apples to Grow Body Parts?

Biohacker Andrew Pelling creates living, functional biological objects that don’t exist in nature, without deliberately modifying DNA in any way. In his lab at the University of Ottawa, he’s even figured out how to use apples and human cells to make ears in a petri dish. But how do you do that, and more importantly, why would you want to? The answer is surprisingly simple, and could mean greater access to medical innovation and well-being for all.

So are they real human ears? Can they hear? The answer is complex. Yes, the ears are made up of real, living human cells, but the material that gives them structure, the scaffolding, is apple cellulose. The ears were carved into the cellulose by hand, and no, they can’t hear.

Growing ears in a petri dishFig: Growing ears in a petri dish. Photo: Alexis Williams.

This may sound like just a creepy science art project, but it demonstrates an important point: that human cells can thrive on the fibrous structures of plants. It is that important because it suggests the possibility of a low-cost, globally accessible biomaterial with which we might reconstruct our falling-apart bodies: skin, bones, veins, organs and so on.

Scientists are trying to make replacement body parts now. Lab-grown organs are at the best bet we have, with scientists experimenting with growing bone, cartilage, even more complex organs like kidneys and hearts. But all of them need a base material that can host living cells. Scientists have spent decades trying to engineer synthetic scaffolds so that blood vessels will grow inside of them. This too can be complex and expensive. The amount of synthetic commercial biomaterial needed to create an organ can sometimes cost thousands of dollars on the market.


Ears carved into apple cellulose impregnated with living human cells.

Fig: Ears carved into apple cellulose impregnated with living human cells. Photo: Andrew Pelling.

Apples are cheap. Whereas previous attempts had used synthetic or highly processed natural cellulose, Pelling’s lab had the idea to use plant cellulose straight from the apple, with very few processing steps and as simply as possible. To get to the cellulose, you slice an apple, wash it in soap and water, and then sterilize it. What’s left is a fine mesh of cellulose into which you can inject human cells, and they grow. They discovered that when you implant it under skin, the surrounding cells enter the mesh and send out signals to create a blood supply, and it becomes a living part of the body.”

The method goes beyond ears on apples. Asparagus may one day help repair spines. Researchers are now plowing through other vegetables to examine their possibly useful properties. There are many interesting structures already in nature that might be used as possible scaffolds for repairing various parts of the human body. They are now examining more candidate plants such as pears, asparagus and mushrooms for their potential in repairing bone, nerves and skin.

People immediately think of genetic modification, but they don’t touch the genome at all. In fact, what makes this interesting is that they’ve transformed biological function without manipulating DNA code. They’ve been calling it ‘augmented biology’. Scientific equipment can be very expensive, sometimes creates inequitable access to research-grade materials and hardware. But by Pelling’s method, we can do complex science simply and cheaply, when possible.

Pelling with his apple idea.Fig: Andrew Pelling with Apple idea. Photo: Sebastian Hadjiantoniou.

Molded and 3D-printed organs are all well and good but if they are mass manufactured there is a possibility every organ in a batch will look really similar. The future for that looks good. It’s interesting to think about how people might be able to take ownership of what their organs and implants look like, and maybe even how their bodies function.




By Kullabs

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