Natural beauty preserved in plant cells

by Liisa Nohynek

VTT

Although the darkest time of the year is already behind us in Finland, it is still a long way to summer. At this time of year Nature´s colour palette consists mainly of different shades of grey. However, we at VTT have preserved our Finnish natural plants as plant cell cultures, which delight us with their colours all year round.

Berry plant cell cultures originating from plants that grew under the midnight sun last summer are now glowing in our culturing rooms with bright colours: yellow and different shades of red, pink and purple. The flavour of our bilberry cell culture reminds us of fresh berries.

The colourful cultures do not exist only for our own joy, but are created to be used in a wide variety of applications, particularly cosmetics. Plants and their extracts are the source of a huge variety of chemicals, and have been used for promoting skin health and beauty since ancient times.

Some of the leading global cosmetic companies have recently launched products with biotechnologically produced plant cells for novel applications exploiting the rich variety of plant-derived chemicals. This activity ensues from general global trends followed by the beauty business, such as the demand for natural, ecological and chemically safe products while exploiting the latest technological methods and tools. The use of plant cell cultures instead of entire plants in cosmetic products follows these trends, and helps protect endangered natural plant species from overexploitation.

Arctic bramble, crowberry and cloudberry

We have joined in the front line of this research area and are maintaining a strong infrastructure and knowhow on plant cell culture technology. Our special interest is in Nordic plants, such as arctic bramble (Rubus arcticus), crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) and cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus).

We cover the whole field of biotechnological processes, starting from establishment of plant cell cultures from pieces of natural plants and ending up in industrial scale production protocols for plant cells. Cultured plant cells are totipotent having the capacity to develop into any organ of the plant. However, when treated with plant growth regulators the cells multiply continuously, producing biomass consisting of identical, undifferentiated cells. In addition to the ecological advantages of this technology, the industry avoids the significant problem of plant raw material availability. The cell cultures can be sustainably generated all year round with consistent chemical quality, and production of chemically and microbiologically safe plant-based material can be ensured.

Specific cocktails of compounds in Nordic plants

The natural conditions in Northern Scandinavia are harsh, and therefore demand special properties of plant species in order for them to survive the long, cold winter and to grow and breed during the summer. A thousand years of adaptation to the short, fickle Nordic summers full of light has resulted in the development of plants with a specific cocktail of compounds protecting them from abundant UV-light, cold nights, insect and microbe attacks, and wet snow in the middle of the summer season. The genotypically expressed desired chemical compounds present in natural plants can be generated in their cell cultures.

Selected plant cell cultures contain nutritionally valuable compounds, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, flavours and pigments, and may exhibit antimicrobial and antioxidant activities with special relevance for human skin health and beauty. For example the purple to dark-red coloured anthocyanins protecting bilberry skins against UV–light and harmful microbes have a potentially similar effect on human skin.

The chemical composition of plant cell cultures is still only partially explored

Novel bioactive compounds are continuously searched by cosmetic companies for skin care and make-up products. Plant cell culture technology, including the cultivation of less well-known plant species as well as modification of plant cell cultures with elicitors and precursors, also has the potential to respond to this need – even in the middle of the dark and freezing Nordic winter.

Liisa NohynekThe author Dr. Liisa Nohynek, Senior Research Scientist, PhD in microbiology, has special expertise in plant cell culture technology. She has extensive experience on plant bioactive compounds, especially in Nordic berries and berry cell cultures. She is also experienced in scaling-up processes enabling production of plant cell biomass with bioactivities for industrial applications. liisa.nohynek@vtt.fi