Borrowing from nature is an age-old theme in science. Form and function go hand-in-hand in the natural world and the structures created by plants and animals are only rarely improved on by humans. Taking that lesson to heart, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are using the decellularized husks of plants such as parsley, vanilla, and orchids to form three-dimensional scaffolds that can then be primed and seeded with human stem cells to optimize their growth in the lab dish and, ultimately, create novel biomedical implants. In an article published online on March 20, 2017 in Advanced Healthcare Materials, a team led by William Murphy, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering and co-director of the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, describes the use of a variety of plants to create an efficient, inexpensive, and scalable technology for making tiny structures that could one day be used to repair muscle, organs, and bone using stem cells. The article is titled “Biofunctionalized Plants as Diverse Biomaterials for Human Cell Culture.” "Nature provides us with a tremendous reservoir of structures in plants," explains Dr. Gianluca Fontana, the lead author of the new study and a UW-Madison postdoctoral fellow. "You can pick the structure you want." The new technology capitalizes on the elegant, efficient structural qualities of plants: strength, rigidity, porosity, low mass and, importantly, surface area. It may help overcome the limitations of current methods such as 3-D printing and injection molding to create feedstock structures for biomedical applications. "Plants are really special materials as they have a very high surface area to volume ratio, and their pore structure is uniquely well-designed for fluid transport," says Dr. Murphy.
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