As traditional breeding techniques failed to keep pace with demand and to provide sufficiently fast and efficient systems for crop improvement, another technology called tissue culture got developed.
What does tissue culture mean? It was learnt by scientists, during 1950s, that whole plants could be regenerated from explants, i.e., any part of a plant taken out and grown in a test tube, under sterile conditions in special nutrient media.
This capacity to generate a whole plant from any cell/explant is called totipotency. You will learn how to accomplish this in higher classes. It is important to stress here that the nutrient medium must provide a carbon source such as sucrose and also inorganic salts, vitamins, amino acids and growth regulators like auxins, cytokinins etc.
By application of these methods it is possible to achieve propagation of a large number of plants in very short durations. This method of producing thousands of plants through tissue culture is called micropropagation.
Each of these plants will be genetically identical to the original plant from which they were grown, i.e., they are somaclones. Many important food plants like tomato, banana, apple, etc., have been produced on commercial scale using this method.
Try to visit a tissue culture laboratory with your teacher to better understand and appreciate the process. Another important application of the method is the recovery of healthy plants from diseased plants.
Although the plant is infected with a virus, the meristem (apical and axillary) is free of virus. Hence, one can remove the meristem and grow it in vitro to obtain virus-free plants.
Scientists have succeeded in culturing meristems of banana, sugarcane, potato, etc. Scientists have even isolated single cells from plants and after digesting their cell walls have been able to isolate naked protoplasts (surrounded by plasma membranes). Isolated protoplasts from two different varieties of plants – each having a desirable character – can be fused to get hybrid protoplasts, which can be further grown to form a new plant.
These hybrids are called somatic hybrids while the process is called somatic hybridisation. Imagine a situation when a protoplast of tomato is fused with that of potato, and then they are grown – to form new hybrid plants combining tomato and potato characteristics.
Well, this has been achieved – resulting in formation of tomato; unfortunately this plant did not have all the desired combination of characteristics for its commercial utilisation.