Plant tissue culture is a specialized form of plant propagation.
It involves taking plant tissue and placing it in an artificial medium with the aim of growing disease-free plants that exhibit consistent profiles. Tissue culture enables cultivators to exploit the wonders of mother nature to a new degree. And while the founding ideas have been around for over a century, only in more recent times has talk of its use in cannabis cultivation come to the fore.
Plant Tissue Culture Techniques
As farming methods evolve, cultivators of the many commercial crops around the world are in a race to innovate for improved efficiency, higher yields, and increased consistency. Tissue culture is one such technique that’s at the cutting edge of this movement. But rather than take us back to the land, these advancements involve trained technicians suited-up in the sterilized conditions of expensive cleanrooms.
Evolving Cultivation Methods in Cannabis
Tissue culture techniques are a far cry from the old days when growers started out with seed. They’d plant them and eagerly await germination before transplanting. It may have been closer to nature’s way, but it’s a slow and inefficient way for anyone to make money.
Then came cloning. By taking a cutting from a plant and transplanting it directly, growers skip ahead by using genetically identical cloned copies of a mother plant. But this seeming efficiency comes at a price too. In time, mothers often become diseased as their genetics weaken with exposure to pathogens. With cloning, all plants must return to seed at some point to reset the genetics, but tissue culture offers yet further benefit.
The Tissue Culture Process
The meristem is the tissue in plants that gives rise to the tissue and organs responsible for growth. It resides in the new growth at the tip of a cannabis plant, and the first step for technicians is to take a tissue culture sample from this section.
The meristem has what are known as pluripotent cells—these are cells that have the ability to self-renew. Once cut, they are sterilized and placed in a sterile medium that contains nutrients and plant hormones. They lead to rapid cell division and replication and form what’s known as a callus.
With roots established, shoots will form before the plant separates into plantlets. Once they reach a certain height, they are then transferred into the soil.
The Advantages of Tissue Cultures
- By following the protocol in a sterile environment, tissue culture plants are free from pests and disease but remain genetically identical to the original sample. Tissue culture provides growers with the ability to remove persistent infections from their grow operations. One such example is the dudding virus HpLVD that plagued farmers in California for a period.
- Tissue cultured plants usually yield higher. With optimized genetics free from disease and pests, plants can divert their precious energy resources into those potent buds rather than fight disease.
- From a logistics standpoint, tissues are easily shipped and stored when compared to alternative propagation methods.
- Product consistency is an ever-present problem in the cannabis industry. With legalization spreading, consumers demand a repeatable experience each and every time. By using genetically identical specimens free from disease, producers can deliver the same product en-masse.
- As is the case with clones, tissue culture provides growers with a foolproof way to ensure a crop that’s entirely female and free from rogue male plants.
- Space requirements are much less for tissue-cultured plants. In standard growing operations, clones and mothers require precious space. With tissue culture, growers now have a way of storing a vast library of genetics in a small confined place, where rather than requiring an entire room, they can store their genetics on a shelf.
The Disadvantages of Tissue Cultures
- The main drawback of the technique is its complexity. It’s incredibly specific. Establishments must employ plant technicians with the correct training to oversee the process.
- Tissue culture requires sterile clean rooms with specialized air filtering technology to minimize the risk of contamination. The expense of setting up such an operation is a barrier to entry for many small enterprises.
- In smaller grow operations cloning is preferable. Cloned plants reach maturity faster than tissue-cultured plants. A cutting from a mother plant takes two weeks on average before transplanting. But, tissue cultured plants may take a month or more to become mature enough. However, larger operations offset this drawback. In them, the efficiencies of scale enabled with tissue culture extend far beyond those of cuttings.
Are Tissue Cultures the Future of the Cannabis Industry?
With legalization still in its infancy, tissue culture isn’t an attractive option as of yet for many cannabis companies. The numbers simply don’t add up for small scale operations. Between set up costs and the time required to take a chemovar to full-scale production, it simply isn’t yet economically viable for many.
With future federal legalization in the US on the horizon, high-tech tissue culture operations will likely spring up to meet wider demand in due course.