Tissue culture needs recognition to promote food security
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has since its establishment introduced various techniques that are, among others, aimed at increasing the country’s food production and improving agriculture.
One of these techniques is tissue culture, which has been used for the mass production of produce such as cassava, plantain, cocoyam, Taro, banana, pineapple, ginger, sugarcane, mango and sweet potato.
One person who stands out as far as this technique is concerned is the current Deputy Director-General of the CSIR, Professor Marian Dorcas Quain. As a renowned biotechnologist with expertise in tissue culture, genetic transformation, plant physiology, molecular biology, cryopreservation and aeroponics, Prof. Quain is credited with starting the CSIR-Crops Research Institute’s tissue culture laboratory and the molecular biology laboratory in 2006.
She is also credited with having over the years worked on numerous crops, focusing on utilising tissue culture techniques for the production of clean planting materials, germplasm conservation and the use of molecular tools for crop diversity.
Daily Graphic’s Augustina Tawiah interviewed Prof. Quain on tissue culture and its relevance to food production in the country, her challenges as a female scientist and how she overcame them. Find excerpts of the interview below:
Augustina Tawiah (AT): Tell me about your journey to become an expert in tissue culture.
Prof. Marian Dorcas Quain (MDQ): The journey has been interesting and challenging. I joined the CSIR in 1996 after I had completed my Master’s programme at the University of Ghana (UG), Legon. Tissue culture was very new in the country at that time.
In 1991, I became the first student ever to use tissue culture for my dissertation at the UG. Because of this, I had to start from scratch, setting up the laboratory because there was no laboratory for that in place to enable me to conduct my research work. Together with my supervisor, Dr Elizabeth Acheampong, we managed to set up the laboratory.
When I joined CSIR in 1996, they didn’t have a tissue culture laboratory. I gathered all that I needed to start their tissue culture laboratory and had it running.
AT: What is tissue culture and how important is it to food production in the country?
MDQ: Tissue culture is an area of science where you take parts of a plant and grow them under a sterile and controlled environment —controlled light and temperature. In this technique, the one working on the plant has the upper hand to regulate how the plant grows — you supply the plant with all the nutrients it needs to grow and this is done in bottles. That is why it is referred to as in-vitro.
With this field of science, you can produce plants that do not have diseases. For instance, if the plant has a fungus, a bacteria or a virus for which reason it is not performing very well on the field when you use tissue culture, you can remove all those pathogens. So, we use tissue culture for the production of clean, quality planting material.
Tissue culture is used to mass propagate. For example, if a sucker of plantain can generate between six to 10 suckers a year when you use the art of tissue culture, you can generate 1,000 suckers from that one sucker of plantain.
AT: How has your field of study contributed towards improving agriculture in the country?
MDQ: Through tissue culture, we have been able to produce quality planting materials. If you take cassava, for instance, you may go to a friend’s farm and take the stem and come and plant it on your farm because the cassava from that farm tastes better.
However, what you may not know is that cassava from your friend’s farm has a disease so when you plant the stem on your farm, you introduce the disease to yours as well. Similarly, the suckers of plantain from somebody’s farm may be infested with weevils, if you plant them on your farm, you transfer that baggage onto your field. With tissue culture, you can eliminate all these and so we get good planting materials.
My field of science is also able to detect genetically modified crops. If you feel a crop out there is genetically engineered, we can take samples of the plant, take it to the laboratory, and test and tell you whether there is genetic engineering in the crop or not.
AT: What benefits has the country made from the introduction of this technique?
MDQ: Tissue culture has facilitated the international transfer of planting materials, especially vegetatively propagated crops. These crops are transferred from one country to the other in test tubes and they are certified as clean planting materials with no pathogens being transferred to Ghana.
Improved varieties of yam, sweet potato, cocoyam, cassava and plantains released in recent times were mostly a result of the breeding programmes receiving plant accessions from international collaborating institutes. These plants arrive in the country as tissue culture materials and they are maintained and multiplied in the Ghanaian tissue culture facility to produce the seedlings required for multilocational trials and subsequent release of varieties.
AT: Which parts of the country have benefitted from the technique?
MDQ: The whole country has benefited from this technique, especially in terms of sweet potato, yam, cassava, Taro, cocoyam and plantain varieties released by the CSIR.
AT: What is preventing the country from adopting the technique nationwide for all food crops in the country?
MDQ: In countries where this technique is widely used, there are policies that criminalise the recycling of planting materials. In such countries, it is a crime to move plantain suckers from one area to the other. The use of quality planting materials improves the yields of your crop and reduces disease pressure, both of which are food security threats.
Hence, this technology should receive the due recognition of the potential it has to facilitate food security, and policies have to be developed and enforced so that the country Ghana can adopt the technique.
AT: Does the nation have dedicated funds towards agricultural research?
MDQ: As a nation, we are not dedicating funds towards research. We should have a national research fund dedicated to research and resourcing the national agricultural research organisations. We’ve had programmes like the West African Agriculture Research Programme (WARP) that the Government of Ghana supported, but as a nation, we have to go beyond that to have dedicated funds.
AT: What motivated you to specialise in tissue culture?
MDQ: During the second year of my Bachelor of Science degree, we were introduced to that field of science. After an assignment given to us, I saw a book written by Dodd and Dodd. It’s more of an introduction to tissue culture; the practicals you go through.
Having gone through it, I found it to be intriguing and thought that this is a field of science I should focus on. Besides, I like plant physiology — how to regulate the nutrients, the chemicals, the reagents and growth regulators that will get the plant growing.
AT: At the time you decided to pursue this field of study, it was a grey area. What challenges did you encounter?
MDQ: The challenges were the availability of funds, people understanding that area of science, getting the reagents and chemicals, training people and having a continuous supply of energy. At the time that I joined CSIR, people did not know about this field of science so there was some kind of resistance.
I had to go from one research team to the other to introduce them to that field of science, make projections about where we can be, what we can do when we go into that field of science and its advantages if they deploy them in their research.
Secondly, it’s a lab-based field of study with 80 per cent of the work done at the laboratory, for which reason you need chemicals, reagents and a continuous supply of inputs. Because of this, it requires a reliable source of funding. If you don’t have money, you cannot run that kind of laboratory.
AT: How were you able to deal with the challenges?
MDQ: I remained focused because I knew the potential of that work. To ensure that I have funding for my work, I was writing proposals to institutions. Whenever there were calls for proposals, I wrote. When there was a commissioned project, I would justify why we had to be there and why we needed a dedicated budget line to deliver on that field of science. That was how I made sure I worked around them to deliver.
AT: Did your gender in any way affect your work?
MDQ: It came in both positively and negatively. For instance, there were funding bodies that would fund only females so in that vein, I benefited. There are situations where organisations would say they want to take a woman on for the sake of gender balance which I wouldn’t go for because you have to bring me in. After all, I qualify not because I am a woman.
AT: Any advice, especially to girls who aspire to be like you?
MDQ: They should be determined and focused. There are a lot of things that can distract them such as the internet but they should always remind themselves of where they want to be. They should not attach gender to any field of science, study and position.