News from the PBS Section

New Grant in Lila Lab/Post-doc Needed:

The LilaLab (Mary Ann Lila, North Carolina State University), along with collaborators at University of Cape Town and Rutgers University, was recently awarded a $1.4M Grant from Medicines for Malaria Venture, to investigate prioritized plant species with potential efficacy for treatment or prophylaxis of malaria.  The principle objective of the project is to accelerate the discovery and development of new phytopharmaceutical drugs and to facilitate commercialization to benefit disease endemic countries.  The principle role of the LilaLab Team will be structural characterization of novel antimalarial bioactives isolated through activity guided fractionation and confirmed as having a high degree of antimalarial activities, including intensive HPLC, LC-MS, and NMR analysis.  A postdoctoral candidate with particular expertise in LC-MS and other analytical techniques is currently being sought to work on this project.  Please send letter of intent and full vitae to [email protected].

Submitted by Mary Ann Lila

Novel bioreactor enhances interleukin-12 production in genetically modified tobacco plants

Scientists from WPI and the Arkansas Bioscience Institute report details of their work producing an important, yet scarce, immune system protein in plants in an upcoming issue of Biotechnology and Bioengineering

WORCESTER, Mass. – Dec. 3, 2008 – Interleukin-12 is a naturally occurring protein essential for the proper functioning of the human immune system. Having either too much or too little interleukin-12 may play a role in the development of many diseases, including some cancers and auto-immune disorders like Crohn’s, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis. In turn, modulating interleukin-12 levels could yield new therapies for those conditions.

In an effort to create a new and cost-effective method for producing interleukin-12 and make more of the scarce protein available for research and therapeutic development, a team of scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center (WPI) and the Arkansas Bioscience Institute at Arkansas State University (ABI) reports that hairy roots from genetically modified tobacco plants can be grown in a contained novel mist bioreactor system, yielding significant quantities of murine interleukin-12. A paper detailing the results of the study has been published early, online, by the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering and will appear in the journal’s printed edition early in 2009.

“We are very encouraged by the results of this study,” says Pamela J. Weathers, PhD, professor of biology and biotechnology at WPI, co-author of the paper. “Interluekin-12 is a valuable protein and there just isn’t enough available for biomedical research, let alone for therapeutic development. Our study shows that we can use plants to produce interleukin-12, and other therapeutic proteins, in a cost-effective controlled process.”

The tobacco project is one of several emerging collaborative efforts between WPI and ABI. In the current study, tobacco plants were modified in the lab of Carole Cramer, PhD, ABI’s executive director and co-author of the paper. Cramer’s team successfully inserted into tobacco plants a mouse gene that directs the production of interleukin 12. Hairy root cultures from those modified tobacco plants were then grown in a mist reactor developed in the Weathers lab. As its name implies, the mist reactor uses ultrasonic technology to spray a fine mist of water and nutrients on the root cultures, which are suspended in a plastic bag. The nutrient solution is collected at the bottom of the bag and recycled through the system. In this way, all of the materials are completely contained and isolated from the environment.

“Some have concerns about growing genetically modified plants in an open field where they could cross-pollinate with other species. Our mist reactor overcomes those concerns because the system is completely contained,” Weathers says. “There is no interaction with the environment, and once we’ve collected the therapeutic proteins grown in the roots, all the remaining material is safely destroyed.”

Traditional pharmaceuticals, like aspirin or statins for lowering cholesterol, are made by synthesizing and combining chemicals in a factory-like production setting. Therapeutic proteins are biologic molecules produced in living cells, which are then isolated, purified and prepared for use in treating disease. For example, insulin is a therapeutic protein now produced by inserting a human insulin gene into bacteria, which in turn prompts the bacteria to make human insulin. Using plants as a production system for therapeutic proteins can not only be more cost-effective than animal cell-based production, but can also significantly reduce the risk of contamination by animal or human viruses or pathogens.

In the current study, Weathers compared the capabilities of the mist reactor with two other common methods for growing plant cultures—the shake flask method and the airlift bioreactor. The results showed the mist reactor produced the highest concentration of interleukin 12. “Our system is simple and scalable. We’ll use these data to optimize this kind of process and scale it up to the next level,” Weathers said.

On the genetics side, the current study used a mouse gene as a model to test the idea and the process. Now, with positive results in hand, Cramer’s team can begin to study a human interleukin-12 gene’s ability to direct the production of the human protein in tobacco plants. “Making large complex pharmaceutical proteins in a way that is highly reproducible, scalable, and not cost prohibitive is quite challenging,” Cramer says. “The mist reactor seems excellent for producing high-quality proteins for vaccine trials and therapeutic applications.”

The mist reactor’s capabilities are not restricted to tobacco roots. The system is being tested on several other plant cultures, including Artemisia annua, which naturally produces very small quantities of an effective antimalarial molecule known as artemisinin. “With our colleagues in Arkansas, we are making good progress on developing the technology and understanding the biology that will allow us to use plants to help create new pharmaceuticals and other chemical building blocks essential for a healthy society and environment,” Professor Weathers said.

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Founded in 1865 in Worcester, Mass., WPI was one of the nation’s first engineering and technology universities. WPI’s14 academic departments offer more than 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science, engineering, technology, management, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts, leading to bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees. WPI’s world-class faculty work with students in a number of cutting-edge research areas, leading to breakthroughs and innovations in such fields as biotechnology, fuel cells, and information security, materials processing, and nanotechnology. Students also have the opportunity to make a difference to communities and organizations around the world through the university’s innovative Global Perspective Program. There are more than 20 WPI project centers throughout North America and Central America, Africa, Australia, Asia, and Europe.

About The Arkansas Biosciences Institute
The Arkansas Biosciences Institute is a five member research consortium funded by Arkansas’ Tobacco Settlement Proceeds Act of 2000. The Consortium is focused on cutting edge research at the interface of agriculture and medicine with the long term goal of enhancing the health of Arkansans and the nation. At Arkansas State University, a new state-of-the-art research building was constructed to house this new endeavor with a grand opening held in September 2004. Since 2004, dynamic cross-disciplinary research clusters have been developed in four target areas: plant-based bioproduction of proteins for medical and biofuels applications; plant metabolic engineering; molecular innovations in food sciences; and the interface of environment, agriculture, and human disease.

Contact: Michael Cohen
[email protected]
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Submitted by President Todd Jones

Micropropagation in the News

Micropropagation for residents of Quick Step

From: The Jamaica Online Star, December 8, 2008 by Noel Thompson

Sitting in the Cockpit Country at the edge of Trelawny and St Elizabeth, the remote district of Quick Step is scarcely heard of as it is off the beaten track. On Tuesday Quick Step became known as a team headed by officials from the United States Agency for International Development through its Protected Areas and Rural Enterprise Projects (USAID/PARE) office, the University of the West Indies (UWI), the Forestry Department and other organisations visited the long winding and narrow road to teach its nearly 1,000 residents a new way to earn their living on a sustainable basis. The residents were introduced to micropropagation of select medicinal plants.

Grown in labs
Micropropagation is the process where plants are grown in labs and later transferred to the fields after being hardened in greenhouses. The plants that underwent this process were yams, pineapples, dasheen, sarsaparilla, medina and others. Several residents admitted that it was the first time they were being exposed to such technology and pledged to take extra special care of the greenhouse and a micropropagated plot given to them by the USAID/PARE and the Forestry Department. Realising that over the years the Cockpit Country, comprising St James, Trelawny and St Elizabeth, was being heavily harvested for various purposes, the agencies took a proactive decision to educate the residents and simultaneously provide sustainable livelihood projects for them, from which they will benefit significantly in the long term.

Medicinal and health drinks
“The initiative is being undertaken to curtail the threat to non-timber forest products, such as plant roots and barks used in medicinal and health drinks, currently serving as a means of livelihood to many rural communities,” said Karyll Aitcheson, USAID/PARE’s local coordinator. Meanwhile, Marilyn Headley, chief executive officer (CEO) and conservator of forest at the Forestry Department, has called on the residents to exercise more responsibility in protecting the forest. She added that it would take thousands of years for the Cockpit Country to be restored should it be wantonly destroyed.

And Dr. Sylvia Mitchell, who lectures at the Biotechnology Centre at the UWI, said it was possible for the residents to earn a sustainable livelihood from the greenhouse project on a large scale, as long as they demonstrated the right attitude to sustain it.

Submitted by Carol Stiff and Sylvia Mitchell

Tissue Culture Company doing benefit to thank local donors:

Last year, the first annual plant propagation benefit workshop for the Milton (Wisconsin) Dog Park was held in cooperation with Kitchen Culture Kits Inc.  Due to the generosity of family and friends and dog lovers across the miles, the dog park received over $1000 in donations.  Other events have been held over the last few years to support the dog park so this year, the dog park is thanking the many donors by giving something back to them:  this year’s plant propagation workshop will be FREE to anyone who has donated to the Milton Dog Park fund.

There is a limit of 20 spaces in the class.  Teachers are encouraged to attend this as this is a great educational tool. The workshop is being offered through a collaboration of Kitchen Culture Kits Inc. and its sister non-profit company, Kitchen Culture Education Technologies Inc.  For more information see our web sites:    and  and

Submitted by Carol Stiff 

Philip White Award for Plant Tissue Culture Training:

Those of you with students working in plant tissue culture should have your students apply for this award.  It was developed especially for students who need specific hands-on plant tissue culture training.  If you need help finding a host lab, please contact Carol Stiff at [email protected]

Philip White Memorial Award

  • The Philip White Memorial Award is a study award made in honor of Dr. Philip R. White, an eminent pioneer, teacher and researcher in plant cell and tissue culture techniques.
  • The fund is to be used to supplement expenses for a student to further study plant tissue culture by acquiring specialized training in a plant-tissue-culture related technique not available at his/her home institution, by traveling to another laboratory. A stipend of up to $650 is awarded yearly for travel to, and training at, an institution of the awardees’ choice. It should not be used to supplement living expenses at a home institution.
  • The award can be used to supplement other awards or scholarships, provided such other awards are not total payment for training.
  • It must be used for direct training in a technique that involves plant tissue culture.
  • Applicants for the award must substantiate that the training will extend their ability to perform research and/or development in a field which requires plant tissue culture. Applicants must be able to demonstrate interest and scholastic achievement,
  • Please note that this is not restricted to U.S. residents.

Applicants need to provide via email:

    • A statement of objectives and past training
    • Type of training they will receive and where
    • A letter from the volunteer trainer indicating that they will agree to train the person in specific tissue culture techniques at a specific site and a specific time period
    • A list of funds needed for travel to the training site (airfare, hotels, meals, etc.)
    • Letters of recommendation from two sources who are familiar with the applicants prior training and can substantiate that the applicant is a student

All materials should be emailed or faxed (1-608-868-2851) to the chairman of the Philip White Committee by April 1. The current chairman is Carol Stiff, [email protected]

Recipients of the award will be notified prior to the SIVB annual meeting in June.

A Mini Tissue Culture Laboratory for Simplifying Plant Tissue Culture Technology in Sri Lanka

Plant tissue culture provides an efficient technology for producing good quality planting material, especially for vegetatively propagated crops (fruits, ornamentals). Usually this is performed in a fully equipped laboratory and hence beyond the pocket of an ordinary person.  Low-cost tissue culture is the use of adapted technology, practices and equipment to reduce the unit cost of a micro propagule and plant production. This should lower only the cost but not the quality of the plant. In order to simplify this technology and use it as a home level or small-scale venture, the suitable simple alternatives and methods need to be researched with respect to plant growth, microbial contaminations and controlling the culture environment without violating the scientific principles of plant tissue culture.

Within this context, we designed and constructed a Mini tissue culture laboratory, aiming at experimenting on these aspects in a true simple laboratory environment. This lab is expected to serve the following purposes.

  1. An actual simple laboratory to conduct research on low-cost tissue culture, identify practical problems encountered and finding suitable solutions
  2. A model lab to educate young farmers, house wives, hobbyists etc who wish to own a simple TC lab
  3. An education unit for school children and teachers to learn the basics of plant tissue culture.

This model lab is ~ 14m2 with 03 compartments for media preparation & sterilization, for inoculation and for the growth of cultures. All expensive lab equipments are replaced with simple equipment (pressure cooker, normal balance, Glass tank for culturing etc). The culture room is not fitted with an Air conditioner for cooling (despite the outside tropical temperature) and no artificial lights (only sunlight). In fact we have simplified the laboratory to a greater extent and currently we are researching on the success of this system and the limitations. The final target of this program is to develop an efficient, scientific and a simple system for plant tissue culture, mainly for the quality planting material production at home level.

Submitted by Darshanie P Prematilake, Research Officer, Horticultural Crops Research & Development Institute, Department of Agriculture, Sri Lanka

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