Drawn to the magic of roots


Few people know as much about root cultures as the biologist Inna Kuzovkina. And the plant cells she and her colleagues from Kyrgyzstan are growing in Moscow and Bishkek might soon play an important role in the fight against cancer.

"Most people can’t imagine how beautiful roots are! At our Institute of Plant Physiology they grow in glass flasks. They are very sensitive cultures, so you need good eyes and careful hands to look after them – and a lot of devotion too. Sometimes, when I’m really happy at work, I also talk to them. "Outside the lab, the roots and their buds form a unity – the bud is the part of the plant that emerges above ground. It was a big surprise, a triumph really, back in the 1980s in the Soviet Union, when we succeeded for the first time in cultivating isolated roots in our laboratory. We use different natural strains of a soil-dwelling microbe by the name of agrobacterium rhizogenes that infects roots and induces them to grow. Under its influence, the roots constantly form delicate lateral roots, and they continue developing if you keep an eye on them and regularly replant small pieces of root in a fresh culture medium. Some of our cultures have been thriving for over twenty years.

"As part of the recent Scopes project with colleagues from Kyrgyzstan and Switzerland, we created root cultures of medicinal plants of the genus scutellaria. There are 32 different types of this genus found in Kyrgyzstan, of which 17 are endemic. They grow only there, and nowhere else on earth. Many of these species are increasingly endangered because their having a medicinal nature means they’re simply plucked out, unchecked. We hope that our cultures will make a contribution to the biotechnological conservation of Kyrgyzstan’s plant diversity.

"Scutellaria baicalensis, the ‘Baikal Skullcap’, is used intensively, not least because it’s regarded as the second-most important plant in Chinese medicine. Even in the West, it has been the subject of increasing interest since it became known that it contains substances such as the flavone wogonin. A few years ago this flavone was proven to be harmless to healthy cells but deadly to certain cancers. Wogonin gathers exclusively in the root – just like many other plant metabolites – and this makes our cultures of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry.

"They’re especially interested because, besides our root cultures, we’ve also been able to establish calluses of the endangered skullcap genus scutellaria andrachnoides, which is endemic to Kyrgyzstan too. Calluses are accumulations of cells that have regressed to an earlier, as yet undifferentiated state and which then reproduce as a kind of plant stem cell. In contrast to root cultures, calluses do not form any proper roots, but simply grow as clusters of cells.

"Together with our doctoral students, we did a biochemical analysis of the content of these cells, and we found to our astonishment that while our root cultures contained several different flavones, the calluses contained almost nothing but wogonin. This could considerably reduce the effort needed to isolate this potential cancer drug.

"I am 75 years old and I don’t find travelling as easy as I used to. That’s why my colleagues from Kyrgyzstan visit us in Moscow more often than my group goes to Bishkek. Many years ago, my colleagues and I jointly supervised Anara Umralina, who is now the head of the plant physiology lab at the Kyrgyzstan National Academy. We’ve been good friends ever since. But without the generous financial assistance from Switzerland – for which our Russian-Kyrgyz collective is extremely grateful – this project would never have come about.

"Many colleagues at my age are still interested in science and are continuing with their work – just like me. That way, we can improve our small pensions a little. In my case, my pension is worth only a third of my salary. But what’s more important: we old people want to pass on our experience. I would like to know that my root cultures will be in good hands one day".

(From "Horizons" No. 101, June 2014)


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