"IF TISSUE culture companies can make profits, why can't villagers?" asks C R Raju, who has developed a tissue culture technique that he claims is cheap and easily transferable to the people -- a feat research laboratories are still to achieve. Raju developed the low-cost technique as part of voluntary work for the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD), an NGO based in Mavelikara in Kerala.
A senior Indian Council of Agricultural Research scientist working with the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute in Kayamkulam, Raju started work on the tissue culture technique in 1989, during weekend visits to his maternal house in a remote village near Mavelikara in Alappuzha district. The failure of initial trials, for nearly eight months, didn't discourage him. Careful detection and elimination of the sources of contamination readied the process for wider application. The next step was to scale down the cost of each and every equipment needed for the culture work -- a long, tedious process.
Raju's tissue culture technique requires simple equipment such as a small balance, a hood, a pressure cooker, a heater, a tubelight and a small room that could be made airtight while culturing. Plants selected for tissue culture were those that could tolerate temperatures of 20-300C and expensive borosilicate glassware was replaced by cheap, colourless bottles. Chemicals of low purity levels were used.
The cost reduction achieved was enormous. According to Raju, culture space of bottles worked out to less than 1 paise per sq cm as compared to Rs 250 per sq cm of culture space in the case of borosilicate glassware.
Most of the plant species tried for the tissue culture technique were found to tolerate considerable variations in the quantity of nutrients. Taking advantage of this tolerance, the costly chemical balance used in the conventional method of tissue culture was replaced by a simple balance worth Rs 15. Autoclaving (sterilisation under high pressure steam) of the tissue culture apparatus was done in the pressure cooker.
Raju's technology is simple enough for anyone who can read English to understand. The total cost of setting up such a unit is Rs 10,000, of which Rs 9,000 goes towards capital costs. Using it, Raju was able to produce one lakh orchids, which he selected because they are easy to handle and multiply. An article by him in a local daily in 1990, in which he described his technique, brought him an overwhelming response and prompted him to start a training programme for which he himself pays.
Production of tissue cultured plants requires knowledge of suitable culture media, ways of maintaining an aseptic environment, techniques of judging developments in culture and methods of hardening in vitro plants. Except for the first step, all the other stages are included in the short training of 16 days spread over four months. Some 27 people from different parts of Kerala have already been trained by Raju. Of them, 12 have started their own laboratories and five have even started production.
Santosh Srinivas, a literature graduate who has set up a tissue culture laboratory in Thiruvananthapuram after his training with Raju, says, "I am perfectly happy with the technique. There have been no complaints from the customers. And, because I use cheap equipment, I can sell at lower prices than others." He sells his cultured orchids to a mostly upper middle class clientele.
M P Govindankutty, an economic botanist at the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute, says, "(Raju's work) demonstrates micropropagation for the common person through a simple technology that works. Media preparation and initiation of cultures is done by people who lack formal academic qualifications, but have grasped the idea behind aseptic manipulation."
Raju is now experimenting with medicinal plants. His technique, with adequate financial and institutional support, can become a major source of employment. COSTFORD is contemplating charging fees from the trainees, especially those who can afford it. Says Raju, "Till now, I have spent Rs 3.5 lakh for developing the technique and giving free training. Can like-minded people sponsor my work?"