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Micropropagation is used to multiply novel plants, such as those that have been genetically modified or bred through conventional plant breeding methods. It is also used to provide a sufficient number of plantlets for planting from a stock plant which does not produce seeds, or does not respond well to vegetative reproduction.
Micropropagation begins with the selection of plant material to be propagated. The plant tissues are removed from an intact plant in a sterile condition. Clean stock materials that are free of viruses and fungi are important in the production of the healthiest plants. Once the plant material is chosen for culture, the collection of explant(s) begins and is dependent on the type of tissue to be used; including stem tips, anthers, petals, pollen and others plant tissues. The explant material is then surface sterilized, usually in multiple courses of bleach and alcohol washes, and finally rinsed in sterilized water. This small portion of plant tissue, sometimes only a single cell, is placed on a growth medium, typically containing sucrose as an energy source and one or more plant growth regulators (plant hormones). Usually the medium is thickened with agar to create a gel which supports the explant during growth. Some plants are easily grown on simple media, but others require more complicated media for successful growth; the plant tissue grows and differentiates into new tissues depending on the medium. For example, media containing cytokinins are used to create branched shoots from plant buds.
Multiplication is the taking of tissue samples produced during the first stage and increasing their number. Following the successful introduction and growth of plant tissue, the establishment stage is followed by multiplication. Through repeated cycles of this process, a single explant sample may be increased from one to hundreds or thousands of plants. Depending on the type of tissue grown, multiplication can involve different methods and media. If the plant material grown is callus tissue, it can be placed in a blender and cut into smaller pieces and recultured on the same type of culture medium to grow more callus tissue. If the tissue is grown as small plants called plantlets, hormones are often added that cause the plantlets to produce many small offshoots that can be removed and recultured.
This stage involves treating the plantlets/shoots produced to encourage root growth and "hardening." It is performed in vitro, or in a sterile "test tube" environment.
"Hardening" refers to the preparation of the plants for a natural growth environment. Until this stage, the plantlets have been grown in "ideal" conditions, designed to encourage rapid growth. Due to the controlled nature of their maturation, the plantlets often do not have fully functional dermal coverings. This causes them to be highly susceptible to disease and inefficient in their use of water and energy. In vitro conditions are high in humidity, and plants grown under these conditions often do not form a working cuticle and stomata that keep the plant from drying out. When taken out of culture, the plantlets need time to adjust to more natural environmental conditions. Hardening typically involves slowly weaning the plantlets from a high-humidity, low light, warm environment to what would be considered a normal growth environment for the species in question.
In the final stage of plant micropropagation, the plantlets are removed from the plant media and transferred to soil or (more commonly) potting compost for continued growth by conventional methods.
This stage is often combined with the "pretransplant" stage.
Micropropagation has a number of advantages over traditional plant propagation techniques:
Micropropagation is not always the perfect means of multiplying plants. Conditions that limits its use include:
The major limitation in the use of micropropagation for many plants is the cost of production; for many plants the use of seeds, which are normally disease free and produced in good numbers, readily produce plants (see orthodox seed) in good numbers at a lower cost. For this reason, many plant breeders do not utilize micropropagation because the cost is prohibitive. Other breeders use it to produce stock plants that are then used for seed multiplication.
Mechanisation of the process could reduce labour costs, but has proven difficult to achieve, despite active attempts to develop technological solutions.