Putting out new shoots

Whether it's increasing yields, cutting growth time of plants, increasing their resistance to disease or preserving genetic resources, scientists say tissue culture could be an important answer to farmers' prayers. Small wonder then that industry, with its nose for profits, is making a beeline for the technology. Unfortunately, the links between the researcher and the entrepreneur are weak India.

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Putting out new shoots

Scientists at Jawaharlal Nehru TAKE A small part of a shoot tip and put it in a test tube. Then add some chemicals that will nurture the tissue and lo and behold, the part grows into a full plant.

This may sound like witchcraft, but it is precisely what tissue culture technology is all about. And given its vast promise, not only is the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) giving it high priority, but industries in the biotech boomtowns of Hyderabad, Bangalore and Madras are also excited.

Because tissue culture enables scientists to duplicate a specific plant, cell or organism, it opens up a vast vista of cloning specific plants or micro-organisms that have elite characteristics such as high yield or resistance to disease. Tissue culture also enables new plants to be produced bypassing the normal reproductive cycle -- production of seeds, for instance.

V Jagannathan, former head of the biochemicals division of the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune, sees vast prospects for tissue culture, both in agriculture and forestry. "Tree breeding takes 50 to 100 years. But better varieties of trees can be developed much faster with tissue culture, and, using tissue culture and genetic engineering techniques, India can wipe out plant viruses," says Jagannathan.

The DBT has approved about 15 units for the production of tissue-cultured plants both for the domestic market and for export. Domestic consumption of such plants is about two million now, while exports amount to about six million. When all the approved units begin production, the total will rise to about 100 million plants and export earnings are estimated at about Rs 50 crore a year, against a total investment in tissue culture production facilities of about Rs 55 crore. Companies intend to produce foliage, flowering and tropical and temperate fruit plants and plantation crops in collaboration with firms from such countries as France, Italy, Belgium, UK and the Netherlands (See box). A V Thomas & Co, a leading tissue culture company, for instance, is planning exports of tissue-cultured orchids in a big way.

DBT has also invested heavily in the development of tissue culture technology focussing on trees for fuel and fodder, bamboos, oil palm and on other plantation crops such as cardamom. Research institutes such as NCL, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Indian Institute of Science, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are involved in basic and applied research to develop tissue culture techniques for a variety of plants. Yet another area of research promoted by DBT and the Ministry of Environment and Forests is to use the new technology to protect India's endangered plants. (See box)

Indian scientists have been at the forefront of research in tissue culture. Even though the possibility of taking a single cell and converting it into a full plant had been predicted as far back as in 1902, it was only in 1958 that Western scientists were able to get an embryo -- the starting point of a new plant like a seed -- from a mass of cultured carrot cells. In 1964, S Guha and Satish Maheshwari of the University of Delhi reported in Nature that pollen grains in cultured anthers of Datura innoxia developed into embryos. This was a major development in tissue culture.
Simultaneously, a team of scientists at TIFR headed by M M Johri has been working on cellular differentiation -- the process by which one cell becomes the leaf and another becomes the stem -- and their findings have become textbook knowledge. "Tissue culture work is still a bit like witchcraft, explains Johri. "There is a lot of hit-and-miss because the basic mechanisms are still not understood well. That is what we are trying to do."

In l990, NCL scientists A F Mascarenhas, R S Nadgauda and V A Parasharami reported flowering in tissue-cultured bamboo shoots grown from seedlings. Given that bamboo of the varieties grown by NCL scientists would normally not have flowered before 30 years, a commentator wrote in Nature (Vol No) that the NCL achievement opened up "endless possibilities for the High Emperor of all the Grasses".

Lab-industry links
But, as yet, there are few links in India between tissue culture industry and research labs. The Madras-based confectionery manufacturer, E I D Parry, did get its initial technology for virus-free, tissue cultured sugarcane from NCL. But, says Parry research manager J Subramani, "We had to change the culture technique and storage systems." And, P Nanthakumar, chief manager of tissue culture at Southern Petrochemical Industries Ltd (SPIC), adds, "We at SPIC developed the technology in-house. It took us two years. If you are willing to invest in time and money, you can develop your own technology. On the other hand, if you want to start commercial production from tomorrow, you will have to import technology."

Many scientists object to importing plantlets, saying it leaves Indian scientific expertise in the cold. Usha Rao of the University of Delhi favours the government acting as an intermediary between Indian and foreign companies and then deciding who should get what work.

Officials at SPIC and Parry agree the main problem with Indian technology is that it holds good for only a few hundred or thousand plantlets, but fails when it involves millions. "As a result, industry has to invest in its own R&D or import technology," says Thomas.

C Sivarama Reddy, executive director of Bio-Tissue Labs in Hyderabad, who worked on tissue culture while associated with Andhra Pradesh Agricultural University, is even more blunt: "Companies go to scientists, but their technology does not work. On paper they claim that they can produce millions of plants, but only a few develop in reality."
Indian scientists have been at the forefront of research in tissue culture. Even though the possibility of taking a single cell and converting it into a full plant had been predicted as far back as in 1902, it was only in 1958 that Western scientists were able to get an embryo -- the starting point of a new plant like a seed -- from a mass of cultured carrot cells. In 1964, S Guha and Satish Maheshwari of the University of Delhi reported in Nature that pollen grains in cultured anthers of Datura innoxia developed into embryos. This was a major development in tissue culture.
Simultaneously, a team of scientists at TIFR headed by M M Johri has been working on cellular differentiation -- the process by which one cell becomes the leaf and another becomes the stem -- and their findings have become textbook knowledge. "Tissue culture work is still a bit like witchcraft, explains Johri. "There is a lot of hit-and-miss because the basic mechanisms are still not understood well. That is what we are trying to do."
In l990, NCL scientists A F Mascarenhas, R S Nadgauda and V A Parasharami reported flowering in tissue-cultured bamboo shoots grown from seedlings. Given that bamboo of the varieties grown by NCL scientists would normally not have flowered before 30 years, a commentator wrote in Nature (Vol No) that the NCL achievement opened up "endless possibilities for the High Emperor of all the Grasses".

Indian scientists have been at the forefront of research in tissue culture. Even though the possibility of taking a single cell and converting it into a full plant had been predicted as far back as in 1902, it was only in 1958 that Western scientists were able to get an embryo -- the starting point of a new plant like a seed -- from a mass of cultured carrot cells. In 1964, S Guha and Satish Maheshwari of the University of Delhi reported in Nature that pollen grains in cultured anthers of Datura innoxia developed into embryos. This was a major development in tissue culture.

Simultaneously, a team of scientists at TIFR headed by M M Johri has been working on cellular differentiation -- the process by which one cell becomes the leaf and another becomes the stem -- and their findings have become textbook knowledge. "Tissue culture work is still a bit like witchcraft, explains Johri. "There is a lot of hit-and-miss because the basic mechanisms are still not understood well. That is what we are trying to do."

In l990, NCL scientists A F Mascarenhas, R S Nadgauda and V A Parasharami reported flowering in tissue-cultured bamboo shoots grown from seedlings. Given that bamboo of the varieties grown by NCL scientists would normally not have flowered before 30 years, a commentator wrote in Nature (Vol No) that the NCL achievement opened up "endless possibilities for the High Emperor of all the Grasses".

Lab-industry links
But, as yet, there are few links in India between tissue culture industry and research labs. The Madras-based confectionery manufacturer, E I D Parry, did get its initial technology for virus-free, tissue cultured sugarcane from NCL. But, says Parry research manager J Subramani, "We had to change the culture technique and storage systems." And, P Nanthakumar, chief manager of tissue culture at Southern Petrochemical Industries Ltd (SPIC), adds, "We at SPIC developed the technology in-house. It took us two years. If you are willing to invest in time and money, you can develop your own technology. On the other hand, if you want to start commercial production from tomorrow, you will have to import technology."

Many scientists object to importing plantlets, saying it leaves Indian scientific expertise in the cold. Usha Rao of the University of Delhi favours the government acting as an intermediary between Indian and foreign companies and then deciding who should get what work.

Officials at SPIC and Parry agree the main problem with Indian technology is that it holds good for only a few hundred or thousand plantlets, but fails when it involves millions. "As a result, industry has to invest in its own R&D or import technology," says Thomas.

C Sivarama Reddy, executive director of Bio-Tissue Labs in Hyderabad, who worked on tissue culture while associated with Andhra Pradesh Agricultural University, is even more blunt: "Companies go to scientists, but their technology does not work. On paper they claim that they can produce millions of plants, but only a few develop in reality."

Indian scientists have been at the forefront of research in tissue culture. Even though the possibility of taking a single cell and converting it into a full plant had been predicted as far back as in 1902, it was only in 1958 that Western scientists were able to get an embryo -- the starting point of a new plant like a seed -- from a mass of cultured carrot cells. In 1964, S Guha and Satish Maheshwari of the University of Delhi reported in Nature that pollen grains in cultured anthers of Datura innoxia developed into embryos. This was a major development in tissue culture.

Simultaneously, a team of scientists at TIFR headed by M M Johri has been working on cellular differentiation -- the process by which one cell becomes the leaf and another becomes the stem -- and their findings have become textbook knowledge. "Tissue culture work is still a bit like witchcraft, explains Johri. "There is a lot of hit-and-miss because the basic mechanisms are still not understood well. That is what we are trying to do."

In l990, NCL scientists A F Mascarenhas, R S Nadgauda and V A Parasharami reported flowering in tissue-cultured bamboo shoots grown from seedlings. Given that bamboo of the varieties grown by NCL scientists would normally not have flowered before 30 years, a commentator wrote in Nature (Vol No) that the NCL achievement opened up "endless possibilities for the High Emperor of all the Grasses".

Hyderabad-based Unicorn Biotek, considered at one time tying up with NCL for their cardamom technology, but backed out later. "There were several people working in cardamom, so we opted out. Dealing with the government has its own hassles," said Unicorn Biotek managing director Amul Sanghani.


Jagannathan contends India missed the bus in tissue culture even though it had an early scientific lead because India continued with lab research, while industrialised countries focussed on applications research. "The only option now," he says, "is to intensify our research and increase interaction between our industries and research labs."


But this means university research will first have to be streamlined, which may prove onerous. Says Rao in exasperation, "For everything, we have to fight -- to get finances, to get recognition. Scientists should be working and not looking after trivial matters." Echoing her sentiments was IARI's S K Raina, "In India, bureaucratic delays act as deterrents. It is private industry that has shown that big business can come out of tissue culture."


Others like Kamaljit Singh of Indo-Australian Flora Pvt Ltd in New Delhi see no role for the government in popularising tissue culture. "Government can help by staying out; it should sleep," says Singh. But Bio-Tissue Labs' Sivarama Reddy wants more encouragement from export promotion councils because "export enquiries are rarely forwarded to us and international trade fairs are very expensive for fledgling businesses".


DBT has taken up tissue culture research right from its inception in 1986. Its support was given initially to research on bamboo propagation, on which Delhi University scientists had been working for long, and to research on tissue-cultured oil palms and coconuts. The work on bamboo is at an advanced stage and tissue-cultured plants are being field-tested in various parts of the country. Work on oil palm and coconut was taken up at the behest of the government's technology mission on oilseeds as the country was importing large quantities of edible oils.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.