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Plant tissue culture lab
supporting state's horticulture industry
April 6, 1998

ConnectiCulture, the Plant Biotechnology Facility's innovative plant tissue culture lab, is open after a year of planning and preparation.

The plant micropropagation service facility, located on Horsebarn Hill Road, was introduced to the University and to industry at an open house on March 27. With the oversight of the lab's director, Mark Bridgen, students have a significant involvement in the lab's management.

"The main objective of ConnectiCulture is to train students in real world business experience. Student interns who want to apprentice in this specialized area of biotechnology will be responsible for the production of laboratory plants," said Bridgen, head of the plant biotechnology facility and professor of horticulture.

The second objective of the lab is to help meet the needs of the Connecticut horticulture industry, he said. This novel approach to producing plants lowers Connecticut businesses' cost of purchasing plants. Normally, these plants are rooted and hardened off before shipment, but this requires more time and space and increases the cost of the plants. ConnectiCulture delivers the plants directly from the containers where they grow. The plants are acclimated to the outdoors at the commercial greenhouses themselves.

"The dreams of the 19th century leaders who founded land grant universities would resonate with Dr. Bridgen's words today," said Robert Smith, vice provost for research and graduate education and dean of the graduate school, at the open house. "The whole idea of a land grant university was to bring technology to the countryside and to the people. That is what you are doing here."

Smith and Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Shirley Ferris cut blue and white ribbons at the open house, which boasted a gorgeous spring day.

"As we go into the next century, this is the kind of cutting-edge research that we're looking to conduct," said Suman Singha, associate dean for academic programs in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Also at the opening were Biotechnology Center Director Thomas Chen, Plant Science Department Head Gerry Berkowitz, Albert Kausch, a newly appointed associate professor of plant science, other faculty and students. Kausch will be working with Bridgen to introduce genes into plants that will resist disease, time blooms and create fragrance. From the horticulture industry were Bob Hermon of White Flower Farm, Chuck Newman of Planter's Choice, Bill Milikowski of Milikowski's Inc., and Kent Kratz of Just-for-Starters. Also present was Bobbe Ostrum, a UConn student who recently started a lab at Clinton Nursery.

The concept of the lab originated in 1996 because the Plant Biotechnology Facility received many requests from the state's nursery and greenhouse industry. Many in the industry obtained micropropagated plants from outside the state and some wanted help in starting plant production.

Micropropagation is the mass propagation of plants in vitro, under controlled environmental conditions, one aspect of plant tissue culture and biotechnology. The goal is to maintain genetic stability and to produce clones rapidly. Cuttings are grown in a sterile environment, so disease and pests can't inhibit their growth.

Through this process, 500 plants can be grown in a single square vial - saving producers vast amounts of space.

Connecticut has the third most plant tissue culture labs after Florida and California, but the labs in the state are very specialized cannot provide Connecticut industry with all the plantlets it needs. UConn's lab is filling the gap. ConnectiCulture now provides the industry with 2,000 plants per week and soon will be up to 3,000 per week.

Since micropropagation and plant tissue culture are important aspectsof Connecticut's economy, the lab provides real-life experience for students in innovative technology and an outlet for UConn researchers to experiment with new procedures. The lab produces plants for nurseries and greenhouses in the state and shares its knowledge with individuals who wish to begin their own micropropagation lab, eliminating barriers to transferring new biotechnological techniques to the private sector. The lab is an incubator for new businesses, such as Just-for-Starters of Eastford, which is using the lab to grow ferns as it builds its own facility.

Renu Aldrich