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Plants: Micropropagation

Orchid seedlings

Small Beginnings: Micropropagation at the San Diego Zoo

Micropropagation is the in vitro (literally, “in glass”) regeneration of seeds, embryos, shoots, leaves, stems, roots, flowers, or single cells using a sterile environment. The plant material is grown on a special agar substance that provides all the nutrients and hormones the plant needs to grow. Through micropropagation, thousands of new plants can be regenerated from a tiny piece of a plant.

At the turn of the 20th century, scientists and botanists proved that every cell has the ability to grow into a new plant by growing cells in culture that produced roots and shoots. A whole new method of propagation emerged along with endless possibilities and years of research. The orchid industry was the first to embrace micropropagation on a commercial scale. Micropropagation procedures were applied to woody plants in the mid 1930s. In the 1940s, it was discovered that viruses could be removed from plants via micropropagation. Micropropagation at the San Diego Zoo began in 2005 by a grant awarded through the Association of Zoological Horticulture (AZH). The first species we worked with were orchids, followed by bamboo, cycads, and coral trees.

The lab used for micropropagation at the San Diego Zoo

Why is micropropagation used?

Micropropagation provides a way to grow plants that are normally difficult to grow from seeds or cuttings. It is an essential tool in plant conservation, supplying large quantities of plants for reintroduction projects and fieldwork. Habitats are saved when rare species are readily available in the industry and illegal collection in the wild becomes less desirable. Micropropagation also facilitates trade between institutions. The sterile nature of in vitro propagation allows for plants to be traded without the concern of spreading diseases and pests between states and countries.

Micropropagation at the Zoo

Since our micropropagation efforts began in 2005, insightful observations and surprising results have shed new light on the micropropagation of many species. However, significant research still needs to be done to perfect the practices and procedures. The research can then be expanded to encompass other threatened and endangered species. These guidelines will be shared with other institutions to successfully micropropagate rare species. The hope is to reduce the number of rare plants taken from the wild and safeguard against their possible extinction.