Why Tissue Culture Matters – a volunteer’s experience

October 12, 2017

During the program we run for our conference scholars, we provide them with details of the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, which provides Australians with the opportunity to volunteer in developing countries. The Fund is involved in a range of placements and it’s always good to hear that the information scholars get at the conference scholars’ program leads to volunteer placements too.

So it was great to hear from Elena Martin Avila, one of our 2015 Crawford Fund scholars who had been working as a postdoctoral Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis in Canberra. Elena was successful in applying for an AVID assignment in Samoa as a tissue culture officer/advisor. Elena has written the following piece about some of the challenges faced by her team at the Plant Tissue Culture facility.

From left to right: Tissue Culture Officer Mr. Faaiuga Tavita, Principal Research Officer Mr. Aualiitia Parate Matalavea, Expert on plant genetic resources Mrs. Valerie Saena Tuia, Tissue Culture AVID Volunteer Dr. Elena Martin Avila, Senior Tissue Culture Officer Anesone Vaai.

Early in her placement, Elena reported “I am having a fantastic experience here, coming from a lab background I am really enjoying the hands-on experience in the field and the nursery work. However, the main part of my assignment focuses in setting up and training people regarding the tissue culture new lab for conservation of germplasm and rapid multiplication to provide planting material for farmers. The work is challenging, but small steps forward are extremely rewarding.”

Elena reports that her experience in Samoa as a volunteer “has really put my career choices into perspective”.

Here’s her report.

Plant tissue culture is a collection of in vitro methods used to maintain or multiply planting material in a sterile controlled environment under optimum culture conditions. Despite playing a significant role in agriculture conservation and food security, it is likely that tissue culture is not something that comes to mind when you think of agriculture development.

One of the main advantages of tissue culture over traditional methods of propagation is that it allows for large scale and rapid multiplication of genetically identical and disease-free planting material for farmers all year around. This is very useful in tropical regions, where the majority of traditional food crops are monocultures that are vegetatively propagated, and many of them, such as banana and some breadfruit varieties, have lost the ability to set seeds.

Vegetatively propagated crops keep all the selected traits from the parent line, but also share all the same vulnerabilities to diseases. This inherent susceptibility to the unforeseen and often destructive consequences of pests, diseases and natural disasters, is a fundamental challenge for agriculture development in the Pacific Islands. An extreme example was the devastating leaf blight that Samoan taro suffered in 1993. The production of this staple crop was abruptly wiped out deeply affecting local food security and eliminating one the main incomes from the Samoan export market. In such cases, tissue culture becomes an invaluable tool to conserve disease-free planting material of agricultural importance as a germplasm backup of the field gene banks, ready to be shared with other countries.

Members of the Crops Division of the Ministry of Agriculture at the Nu’u nursery sorting and transferring the Tissue Culture plant material delivered from SPC/CePaCT.

Mr. Anesone Vaai, Senior Tissue Culture Officer at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) and my counterpart during my volunteer assignment in Samoa, reflects on this matter:

“The importance of the tissue culture is the possibility of mass production of disease free plants using different micro-propagation approaches (embryo, organ or callus culture) for conservation (gene bank), research and to ensure the sufficient supplies of planting materials for commercial purposes. This is crucial for the sustainability of crop biodiversity and food security in Samoa and across the Pacific region.”

Mr. Faaiuga Tavita, a Tissue Culture Officer that has been working for Crops Division of the MAF for the past 10 years, also shares his views:

“Our tissue culture unit has long been under Research Division because we conduct research on multiplication protocols for various crops. The mass multiplication and conservation of the most important genetic materials is vital so biodiversity is not lost due to heavy disease infestation.”

Faaiuga also touches on the importance of tissue culture as a means to share germplasm across countries in the region. “Thanks to tissue culture, we are able to easily receive genetic materials from CePaCT (Center for Pacific Crops and Trees). We receive new plant varieties that Samoa should not be missing out on for the benefit of farmers and the agricultural sector as a whole. We can also access genetic materials from other countries in the region provided that we placed a request to CePaCT.

Once the new genetic varieties arrive to our laboratory, we compare the multiplication rates against our local varieties and test how the crops respond to chemicals. The plants are transferred to the nursery and then to the field, but we keep copies in tissue culture for conservation and for future research activities, making sure that they will not be lost.”

There used to be two tissue culture laboratories in Samoa: one located at the University of the South Pacific (Alafua Campus) which is strongly supported financially by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), and another with the MAF, under the structure of the Crops Division. At the moment, the MAF is renewing the tissue culture laboratory to replace the old facility. The new facility is funded by Samoa Agriculture Competitive and Enhancement Project (SACEP), under the umbrella of the World Bank, and completion is expected by the end of 2017. Once finished, the new lab will be noticeable bigger and it is projected to become a leading tissue culture facility in the South Pacific for distribution of disease-free planting material to farmers in the region. This key national infrastructure will also play a substantial role for conservation of plant genetic resources of agricultural influence for the Pacific.

Despite the strong benefits of having an operative plant tissue culture lab, there are imperative burdens for running and maintaining such facility in the tropics.

“The main challenges we face with the running and maintaining of the lab is the high cost of the operations and maintenance. We need a consistent form of financial support to ensure the conservation of the germplasm and maintenance of infrastructures. If the equipment and facilities don’t get maintained, contamination becomes a key issue that has to be address and eliminated within the operating system to avoid too many losses. In addition, tissue culture is a labor-intensive process that requires technically trained staff to carry out the activities effectively and productively” says Senior Tissue Culture Officer Anesone Vaai.

And he is not wrong. Working as a Tissue Culture Officer Advisor here in Samoa, I can really appreciate how the initial building cost is only a small part of the funding needed to sustain a functional lab long term. The facilities require regular maintenance and skilled personnel to run efficiently, as well as chemicals and other laboratory consumables. These are challenges anywhere in the world, but being on a small island, the shipping of materials or technically trained personnel to maintain the equipment results in additional expenditure. The problem is that, once built, the majority of the running costs rely on very limited local budgets, that are unable to fully support the facilities, and therefore the labs decay quickly. It is of crucial importance that the funding agencies for agricultural development back these facilities beyond the construction phase, so they are not forgotten once they are built. Only in this way will they be able to thrive and continue to contribute to conservation of valuable genetic resources as well as contribute to achieving food security in vulnerable regions, leading to enhanced crop quality and yield.

Dr. Elena Martin Avila
Tissue Culture Officer/Advisor (Australian Volunteer for International Development)
Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries of Samoa

“I’m currently an Australian Volunteer for International Development working as a technical advisor and mentor for the tissue culture team at the MAF, in Samoa. My role is to build capacity by improving skills and knowledge of the local tissue culture workers in regards to effective ways to manage and operate the lab, including scaling up to a bigger facility. In addition to that, I also review lab materials (chemicals and equipment), provide guidance in methodologies and aseptic techniques, media protocols and experimental design. Also part of my assignment is training the staff on strategic management and planning to set-up the new lab.”