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The Biophysicist Transforming Asparagus Into Medical Implants



One of the most mind-bending ideas in medical science is the concept of growing spare parts to use when ours break down. Andrew Pelling wants to do this using vegetables, by harnessing what makes plants different from animals- their fibrous cellular walls. Believe it or not, Pelling's work was inspired by Audrey II in the movie Little Shop of Horrors.

Around 10 years ago, Pelling, a biophysicist, started thinking with his team about materials that could be used to reconstruct damaged or diseased human tissues. Surrounded by a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables at his University of Ottawa lab, Pelling and his team dismantle biological systems, mixing and matching parts, and put them back together in new and creative ways. It’s a little bit like a hacker who takes parts from a phone, a computer, and a car to build a robotic arm. Or like Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein, who built a monster out of cadavers. Except Pelling’s team has turned an apple into an ear and, most recently, a piece of asparagus into a scaffold for spinal-cord implants.

Pelling believes the future of regenerative medicine—which uses external therapies to help the body heal, the same way a cut heals by itself or a broken bone can mend without surgery—is in the supermarket produce aisle. He calls it “augmented biology,” and it’s a lot less expensive—by thousands and thousands of dollars—than implanting organs donated by humans, taken from animals, or manmade or bioengineered from animal tissue.

Read about Pelling's research, including spinal cord regeneration using asparagus spears at Atlas Obscura.


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