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Kim Colavito Markesich
University of Connecticut College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Journal April/May/June 2004


In a new international collaboration, Mark Brand, professor of plant science, is working with faculty from the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in South Africa to develop a plant tissue culture facility at UFH.

The University of Connecticut and the University of Fort Hare have a formal partnership, a linkage that fosters exchange of ideas and materials among faculty, staff and students at the two universities: Individuals learn from each other while building international understanding and cooperation.   

Fort Hare is located in the Eastern Cape region, one of the poorer and heavily populated areas, with an arid climate not particularly well suited to traditional agriculture production. One profitable market, however, comes from native floral plants that produce essential oils for various markets.

According to Brand, many of these essential oils contain secondary metabolites that are used in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, food, and perfume industries. South Africa’s diverse plant life provides some 3,000 species that are used as either ornamental plants or derivative plants.

Recent research by Fort Hare faculty has focused on plant sources of antioxidants, antimicrobials, and other naturally occurring plant compounds, some with pharmaceutical promise for treatment of human diseases. However, while all these plants are available, the unfavorable climate has limited successful large-scale plant production.

“There are a lot of plants that the South Africans use for medicinal benefits, but they’re afraid of over-harvesting wild populations,” says Brand. “Tissue culture is a way to rapidly produce more plants and a tool to enhance plant production of essential oils.”

A state-of-the-art tissue culture laboratory could provide a whole new industry for the region that would include greenhouses and production facilities employing local residents. A biotechnology lab would provide the opportunity for genetic research to improve essential oil production. For instance, transgenic or tetraploid (double chromosome) forms of plants produce larger quantities of essential oils. Eventually scientists may isolate the genes that turn on oil production, and perhaps induce the plants to produce more oil.

Another way to enhance production is to collect plants from all over South Africa, and find the best naturally occurring producers. Tissue culture would facilitate the mass production of these superior genotypes.

Brand is collaborating with two faculty members from Fort Hare, Michael Magwa and Samuel Waladde. Magwa spent this past fall semester at UConn on a Fulbright Scholarship, learning tissue culture technology. Says Brand, “He brought with him a bare-root, shriveled-up, nearly dead Salvia plant that we resurrected in the greenhouse.” Salvia is grown for its essential oil. Magwa and Brand established tissue cultures of the South African Salvia.  They also treated the plants with colchicine in an effort to produce tetraploid forms; Brand is currently evaluating the cultures to see if they were successful.

The tissue culture lab would be part of two colleges within the University of Fort Hare, the College of Agriculture and the College of Science and Technology. The project wouldestablish a tissue culture and biotech program for Fort Hare students, and it would offer additional opportunities for students in the Uconn College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Says Brand, “Ultimately, this relationship will provide our faculty and students with a unique opportunity to see different cultures and understand the challenges they face. There are just so many unique horticultural plants in South Africa. Many of the geraniums and succulents we produce commercially in the U.S. are growing wild there. I hope we might set up course for our students at Fort Hare based on the flora of South Africa.”

With the tissue culture facility project still in the planning stage, Brand and Morty Ortega, assistant professor of natural resources management, plan to visit UFH this summer on a fact finding and planning trip. Ortega has visited UFH and twice has taken UConn undergraduate students to UFH for a course called “African Ecology and Renewable Resources Management, ” which he team taught with UFH and other UConn faculty. Brand and Ortega will learn what facilities UFH has that can be devoted to the new tissue culture laboratory and what needs to be obtained. They will also assess the needs for other programs. Brand is working to find grant funding for the laboratory. Fort Hare faculty are currently researching plant varieties for use with tissue culture and examining active ingredients and possible applications of extracts.