More than a tropical treat: Coconut water in biotechnology
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
By Neeru Nagarajan
“Hard outside, but sweet inside,” they say about the humble coconut. In many parts of the world, especially coastal towns and cities in India, the coconut is a cooking staple. From chutneys and sambars to arracks and toffees, the coconut has tickled many a tastebud. Every single component of coconut tree can be put to some use. Similar to the banana tree, the coconut tree is revered across several cultures for its versatility — so much so that it’s called “the tree of life” around the world.
But the fruit is far more versatile than you imagine!
In Pasay, Philippines, in 1978, the then First Lady Imelda Marcos built a palace to accommodate the Pope during his visit. This palace was called the Coconut Palace, for good reason. 70% of this palace, including its roof, columns, and floors, was constructed using materials derived from the coconut tree! Not only that, every single piece of furniture inside are made using products like the shells, husk, coir, and lumber of the coconut.
Even this doesn’t account for much when compared to the magic it’s making in biotechnology. Coconut water has the capability to help grow other trees and plants as well, as an ingredient in plant tissue culture experiments.
What is plant tissue culture?
Plant tissue cultures being grown at a USDA seed bank, the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, US.
A majority of plant research involves growing plants, either clones of familiar plants or new genetically altered variations. This is done in a liquid called ‘medium’ in artificial, controlled environments. Not just laboratories with sterile conditions, but also in places where all the factors that aid in the growth of plants, such as temperature, light, soil nutrients, and so on, are under the scientists’ control.
Plant tissue culture is the experiment through which small, sometimes microscopic, pieces (tissues) from a single plant — or single cells from several plants that are encouraged to develop into one whole plant — are grown and multiplied in a laboratory.
Plants are frequently grown in laboratories either for industrial uses or for research. Such experiments are also done to produce interesting new plant variants that are resilient to unfavourable weather conditions or diseases. Even though it’s hard to keep bacteria and fungi away from plant tissues outside of a fully equipped laboratory, it’s still entirely possible to culture plants anywhere — yes, even in a classroom!
Orange cauliflower, created by agricultural scientists at Cornell University.
The role of coconut water in these experiments
The medium in which plants are cultured is usually composed of several things that a growing plant needs: micronutrients, macronutrients, amino acids, carbon sources, and so on. A good medium would aid the growth of plants in a laboratory environment.
Several experiments (such as this one) have been conducted to show that when the medium is supplemented with coconut water, the small plant pieces regenerate quicker. Coconut water has so many nutrients and benefits that it enhances the growth of shoots and leaves in cultured plants.
Mainly, coconut water contains cytokinins, which are plant hormones that positively influence plant growth and budding. Why does the rose plant in your garden flower? It’s because their natural cytokinins travel upward from the root through the stem and enable growth.
Coconut water, when used in plant tissue culture, has been shown not only to promote cell division but also inhibit aging in the new plants. This means, a plant tissue would grow at its own pace in the medium, but with coconut water, the plant tissue would grow faster. A coconut tree is the tree of life, in more ways than we thought, no?
An important part of gaining 21st century skills is about knowing the various ways in which any product can be used and bringing different combinations of these products towards innovation. We, at QShala, endeavour to bring these skills to every child in an engaging and joyful manner. Explore QShala’s programs today!
About the Author
A recent MFA Creative Writing graduate, Neeru Nagarajan writes fiction, tech stuff, the occasional poetry, and lengthy Twitter threads (@poonaikaari). She loves cats and reality TV surrounding food.