In 1995, Robert Wellens and Teresa Sierra started the succulent tissue culture (STC) project in a Netherlands laboratory. Their work with the in vitro propagation of succulents was the first of its kind involving decorative plants, although the technology had previously been applied to agricultural plants. Whole plants can be recreated from plant fragments using the technology. Altman Plants, one of the largest producers of cacti and succulents in the United States, called the Dutch lab's experiments "akin to cloning."
In Vitro Protocols
The work must be carried out in an extremely sterile environment to guard against the introduction of unwelcome fungi or bacteria. Constant humidity and temperature conditions also have to be maintained. Stems, leaves, root tips, flowers, petals, stamens or pollen grains can become the tissue basis of the procedure, said Peter Lapshin, who kept an online journal about the project.
Specialization of Cells
In the sterile lab environment, single cells are isolated from the plant tissue. The cells then divide, producing more cells. Next, the cells begin to become specialized to perform specific functions, such as becoming parts of a leaf. The cumulative result will be a new, complete plant.
Research is conducted to determine the optimal percentages of various hormones and nutrients required by the plant to be propagated. A distinct feature of in vitro technology is the use of specially designed synthetic growing media, Lapshin reported. The developing plants are kept in hermetically sealed containers on a bed of agar and infused with the nutrient solution.
Engineering New Varieties
One of the main innovations of the succulent tissue culture project is the introduction of color variegation into succulent plants, according to the STC laboratory's website. The scientists have developed new multicolored varieties of aloe, yucca and haworthia plants. In vitro technology removes barriers preventing the crossbreeding between distant species, resulting in some novel combinations.
Saving Endanged Plants
In addition to producing new plant varieties, STC's other mission is to protect and revive endangered plants, some of which are already considered extinct in their natural habitats. They hope to reduce the incidence of illegal collecting of rare specimens for profit. With the use of tissue culture, small dispensable plant fragments can be obtained for propagation purposes without removing entire plants and further depleting the flora in an affected habitat.