Lake Placid man helped pioneer plant tissue propagation

Lake Placid may be a small town, but it is also home to cutting-edge technology in the form of tissue culture plant propagation - that is, taking a microscopic pinch of plant cells and cloning it into hundreds of thousands, if not millions of mature plants.

Sixty-two-year-old Venky Krishnamurthy has been in the business of plant cloning since the birth of the field back in the early 1970s. Born in Bangalor, India, Krishnamurthy got a four-year degree in agriculture in his native land, then came to Chicago to get his master's in plant propagation. He also took a 13 month business course and got to work as a landscape architect, which introduced him to tissue culture propagation. But the field was so very new that they were no study programs for it. Krishnamurthy got in on the ground floor.

Plant cloning works like this: In a sterile environment, a tiny pinch of juvenile tissue, the growing tip of the axillary bud is taken from a plant with desirable characteristics. That tissue culture is placed in a special medium containing optimum levels of sugar, vitamins, amino acids and more. It grows in a sterile container in a lab. As shoots emerge from the culture, they can be split off and rooted to produce plantlets. In about nine months to over a year, the plantlets are mature enough to be potted and grown to maturity in a greenhouse.

One major benefit of tissue culture propagation is the ability to create enormous volumes of plants from a single tissue, which can't be done with cuttings. "From one tissue in about a year or two years' time we can produce hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of plants," Krishnamurthy said.

He called the new plantlets "babies" and said they were genetically and physically identical to the parent plant, another benefit for capturing desirable features like color or hardiness.

These plants are also healthier than those grown from seed or propagated by cuttings because they are grown disease-free in a sterile environment, Krishnamurthy said. They may also have more desirable features like growing multiple stalks as opposed to one, such as in the case of orchids.

In 1975, Krishnamurthy began experimenting with plant cloning with a small company in Chicago. Only a few plants like orchids and ferns were being cloned in those days, he said. In 1979, he and wife Sujitha moved to Florida and began working for Classic Caladiums. Eventually, Krishnamurthy worked as production manager for the largest tissue culture lab in the world at the time - Twyford Plant Laboratories in Sebring. They cloned anthurium, calathea, dieffenbachia, ficus, gerbera daisies and more.

An expert in the field, Krishnamurthy began working as a consultant to help start tissue culture labs locally and all over the U.S., as well as back in his home country of India. In 1992, the couple opened their own tissue culture lab in Lake Placid called VK Enterprises. There, Sujitha, who grew up on a coffee plantation in India, focuses on orchids and bromeliads while Krishnamurthy clones ornamental grasses and other plants for Hidden Acres Nursery.

With his almost 40 years of experience in the field of plant cloning, Krishnamurthy said his work now is enjoyable with virtually no stress. "When I look at the tissue culture, you can see life. Something is happening. One day it's a small culture, the next day a leaf is growing," he smiled.

Because the field is relatively young, there are always new things on the horizon, he said. Although the focus is currently on ornamental plants (and as a result the industry took a hit during the recession), it may prove to have other uses for biofuel, fighting citrus greening, food production and more.

"In India, we used to do bananas by taking the rhizome and cutting it. We got a 30 percent higher yield through tissue culture," and the healthiness of plants was improved, Krishnamurthy reported.