We Vitro: Innovations in Tissue Culture Technology

by | Feb 20, 2019

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

One of the major criticisms dogging the marijuana industry is the problem of consistency. Maintaining uniformity from one crop to the next is challenging; mother nature is notoriously hard to replicate and prone to spontaneous variability even under strict growing conditions. As it turns out; cannabis is no different. It's this genetic, and environmental variation which make it tricky to adapt to the pharmaceutical industry, where results must be identical from one batch to the next.

It’s this underlying challenge which is pushing cultivators away from traditional growing techniques like seeding and cloning. Seeding leads to considerable genetic variability, and while cloning improved upon seeding, it requires significant space considerations and does little to reduce labor costs.  Time-consuming, space-hogging technologies are not suitable for the massive indoor facilities under development.

Enter Tissue Culture Technology

Today, the big names in the industry are moving increasingly towards tissue culture (TC) technology as a way to improve the consistency of their product and to reduce labor, all while reducing the space needed by older propagation techniques.

Over the last few years, the TC phenomenon has been taking the cannabis industry by storm. Attend any cannabis expo in North America, and one of the most notable trends is the move towards TC. In years past, the clone companies dominated the convention floor, but now there is a visible shift towards companies designing cannabis-specific TC systems.

WeVitro Innovation

Despite the recent attention TC is receiving from the cannabis industry, it may be surprising to hear that there hasn’t been any significant innovation in TC techniques for well over two decades, according to Kevin Piunno, the founder of WeVitro. As a Master’s student at the University of Guelph, whose focused has been entirely on TC research, Piunno has inside knowledge. He's applied his real-world expertise on TC, to the growing need of the cannabis industry.

It is true that moving towards TC technology reduces the square footage required for propagation, but it doesn't necessarily reduce manual labor. Working within a TC laboratory at the University of Guelph for so long, Piunno saw firsthand how labor intensive the process was, even using state of the art technology. The most fundamental aspects of conventional TC products, like the propagation box, were not designed for ease of use. While it may have passed in the laboratory, they didn’t hold up within a massive multi-million-dollar indoor grow operation. The time and space demands are too high for poorly designed equipment.

Based on these real-experiences, We Vitro is seeking to redesign the plant tissue culture vessel for ease of use within a commercial cannabis setting. In practice, this means making the lids easily removable, reducing the time it takes to get into and out of each vessel. We Vitro has also more than quadrupled the size of the vessel, from the standard 340 ml GA-7 box to their 1300ml box. This means cultivators can propagate many more explants per box than before. Ramping up the box makes it much easier to work within (larger opening), and again reduces the labor-losses by merely reducing the number of boxes an employee handles.

Designed for Cannabis

The new and improved tissue box serves as the basis for the other modular attachments, specifically designed for use within the cannabis industry. Cultivators generally piece together a TC system, including lights, tables, and rockers from multiple suppliers. While these “Frankenstein systems” work in theory, they are not conducive to consistent results. Piunno identified many areas needing improvement, and as such We Vitro is set to launch an entire line of modular attachments which are more affordable, efficient, and effective for TC applications.

Piunno highlighted the Photoblaster, an LED lighting system which snaps on to the We Vitro vessel lid providing consistent light from one end to the other. Studies show, fluorescent bulbs are very non-uniform, so the lighting apparatus designed specifically for vessel creates a more uniform environment for the plants. Additionally, they offer the Rocker, which tips the box slowly back and forth, dipping the cutting's tiny root systems into and out of a liquid hormone solution.

A third innovative modular add-on is the Rootstand, which on the surface is a relatively simple platform to elevate the cuttings above a liquid hormone solution. However, despite the simplicity, the Rootstand allows growers to move away from the labor intense agar gel, and towards a cleaner and more efficient liquid option. It's a simple modular upgrade, with significant payoffs. In tests using banana cuttings, Piunno stated, “The cuttings had the same root quality, but in liquid, using the Rootstand, growth completed in just 2 weeks – double the speed of gel solutions!”

Launching Soon

We Vitro is set to launch the first round of products in March 2019, but Piunno has plans for an expanding line of modular attachments specific to cannabis propagation. These include pieces for CO2 regulation, humidity controls, and a fascinating add-on designed to scrub ethylene gas out of the micro-environment.

Most excitingly, Piunno plans to launch a community hub for tissue culture workers. Unlike many established forums where cannabis cloners and hydroponic gurus connect, there are few places for TC workers to discuss technique and share knowledge. Piunno explains that the industry is struggling to fill positions for experienced TC experts, as the current course options are often cost prohibitive. In time, he hopes to produce a series of videos covering basic techniques, general information, and instructional videos.

With the cannabis industry now transitioning into TC technologies, this largely unknown propagation technique is very likely going to see a massive influx of talent and innovation. Cannabis has a way of propelling technologies from relative obscurity into the stratosphere in a short period. As such, We Vitro is positioned to become a cannabis TC leader, by adapting real-world TC experience with the unfulfilled needs of commercial indoor cannabis growers.