Twenty-thousand years ago, prehistoric humans living on the tundra built structures from mammoth bones. Today, modern humans mold concrete around steel skeletons to build much larger structures. But steel and concrete still aren’t renewable in the way those oversized fibulas were millennia ago. How can we address the needs of the present, building bigger and taller, while learning from the past? Researchers at the University of Cambridge think they may have an answer: artificial bones.
Artificial bones and eggshells, grown in a lab, are a durable, powerful construction material that may eventually prove easier to produce than steel or even concrete. The scale is no longer a mammoth hunt away, but there’s hope that this approach could calcify into something sustainable in the future.
The fact that slightly complicates the issue is that bones break. Luckily for us, bones heal when inside our bodies. But if we’re ever going to build osseous structures (osteostructures?), fractures are a serious concern. Scientists and engineers are working to reproduce even this self-healing characteristic in artificial bones. And since they’ll be grown in a lab, the artificial bones won’t be totally bonelike — they’ll just be inspired by nature. We won’t be Lincoln-Logging femurs and tibiae.
There’s a lovely narrative arc to this idea: Humans are returning to their wise prehistoric ancestors’ methods. Unfortunately — and counterintuitively — modern humans may be more superstitious than their predecessors. It doesn’t seem likely that there’d be a significant interest in living in a house built from bones, let alone a skyscraper. The Cambridge researchers, however, promise that bone buildings would still look like our current, steel-and-concrete amalgams. So we might not have to readjust too much after all.