Case study

Fast Forward Competition 2014: Horticultural Micropropagation Services

Royal Botanic Gardens were awarded nearly £84,000 in the 2014 Fast Forward Competition to fund their ‘Horticultural Micropropagation Services’ project.

Plant in test tube

Intellectual property rights in plant breeding

Micropropagation is a method of producing useful plants in much larger numbers than you could by natural methods. It’s been around for more than 90 years and has had a major impact on plant breeding. As well as many familiar plants it’s given us the bananas and blueberries we see in our supermarkets.

Micropropagation services are available for large-scale production of established varieties. It can be difficult to do the same for small-scale services or unusual species though, which can harm innovation. Innovation in plant breeding usually comes from small and micro businesses. Unfortunately, these businesses are often least able to make use of typical micropropagation services.

Kew Gardens has extensive expertise in culturing unusual and difficult-to-propagate plants. The team at Kew believed that they could use this expertise to meet the needs of small plant breeders by offering a commercial micropropagation service. This service would assist plant breeders in evaluating the commercial potential of new varieties. It would also help them decide whether to seek formal IP rights, known as Plant Breeders’ Rights.

A new approach to micropropagation

The purpose of this project was to examine the viability and practicality of offering this service. The project looked at the technical feasibility of running a commercial micropropagation service. It also assessed the commercial opportunities available.

The achievements on a technical level were considerable. As part of the project the team used a bioreactor system for rapid multiplication of Thalictrum, a crop yet to be grown in volume. The system used in this project has the potential to be a reliable method for large scale propagation of this species.

Kew presented details of the project at a Royal Horticultural Society trade workshop. The concept was well received, with Tim Upson, Director of Horticulture at RHS saying:

This project applies public sector expertise to the challenges faced by innovators in this industry. It could make a real difference to British plant breeders.

From concept to reality

Further financial support is required to transfer this laboratory concept to a horticultural service. The team are confident that it can work for small enterprises as well as larger businesses. They’re currently looking for follow-on funding from the Kew Foundation and specialist funders.

The team are keen for the benefits of the project to continue. Should the service not be commercially viable for Kew then they will seek to license the protocols.

Published 9 July 2015