Give him an apple, he'll make you an ear

The future of synthetic body parts

How to Grow Human Ears from Apples

6 years ago
Duration 1:30
How to Grow Human Ears from Apples

"Biohacking" sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it's more like DIY biology--people who are outside of conventional scientific research labs experimenting with biology.

Now, it looks like biohacking could have a real impact on science and medicine. A new Canadian start-up called Spiderwort is offering an affordable, open-source CO2 incubator, available next year. It will help researchers, scientists and biohackers make body parts from scratch.
Andrew Pelling

Andrew Pelling is the brains behind the operation. He is a professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics at the University of Ottawa. Andrew has been using his self-created CO2 incubator to grow human ears out of apple slices.

How does he do that? Andrew takes McIntosh apples, carves them into ears, and then bathes them in soap and water to remove all the cells and DNA. That results in a scaffold, the fibrous part of the plant, onto which you can grow human and animal cells. "We're basically making an implant," he says. "It's a relatively safe material that could potentially be used in a clinic to reconstruct structures in our own bodies."

And the advantages of making body parts from scratch with your own incubator? "I think of these as 'artisanal' ears for hipsters. You can hand-craft these ears yourself," he says. "But more meaningfully, it lowers the cost and could potentially be more accessible and available to other people in different parts of the world."

A CO2 incubator is a necessary, basic piece of hardware to perform research in cellular biology, but they are often restrictively expensive. Andrew built his own incubator, mostly out of items he found in the garbage. He then released it online as an open-source project. And now, he's started a business, selling inexpensive CO2 incubators to those who don't want to build their own.

As for whether Andrew's apple ears will be one day be used for transplants? "We're not quite at the stage of organs, but could we potentially use them for repairing bone and skin? I think there's some potential there," he says. "We're definitely at the stage where we're going to start really finding out."