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A virtual biology lab makes complex plant biochemistry easier to understand

Illustration: Siddharth Kankaria / Research Matters


Have those numerous chemical equations haunted you at school? Were those diagrams in biology classes overwhelming? Now, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT KGP) have a novel solution to help students understand the biochemistry of ‘secondary metabolites’ in plants—be it the complex series of chemical reactions, or their occurrence in metabolic pathways. They have developed a ‘virtual lab’ that uses simulations to describe these concepts. Not only does this lab enable self-paced learning, it also provides remote access to an instrument routinely used to identify and isolate such compounds.

Secondary metabolites in plants are chemical compounds, which although not directly involved in plant development, provide a host of other functions. Alkaloids like cocaine, caffeine and nicotine, flavonoids and tannins are all examples of such compounds. Recently, these compounds have attracted attention for novel applications, particularly in healthcare, because of their potential anti-oxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties.

Plant secondary metabolites virtual lab is a first of its kind in India,” says Prof. Padmavati Manchikanti, an Associate Professor at IIT KGP and the lead author of the study. The lab contains interactive illustrations of tissue-specific accumulation of the secondary metabolites, and methods for extracting and purifying them in three model plant systems—tea, maize, and petunia. The lab can be accessed by anyone at http:// The virtual lab has several self-paced learning modules, with each describing the concept using interactive simulations of various processes, a self-evaluation quiz at the end, and references for further reading.

Another aspect is the need for students and researchers to understand the nature of secondary metabolite accumulation in plants, which is enabled by the use of a High Performance Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC). This instrument is routinely used by post-graduate students and researchers and is slowly also becoming a part of the undergraduate curriculum. “Access to HPLC is still a challenge in many institutes and colleges,” says Prof. Manchikanti. In most institutes, there is a lack of trained personnel, and in some cases, students are shown only demonstrations of the instrument in large groups. The authors of the study have made it easier for interested students to access the tool remotely with an authentication, completely free of cost! This will help students get a better feel for the equipment, which will greatly enhance their learning experience, she adds.

In addition, the researchers have also developed protocols to extract different metabolites so that students can go through the steps in detail and at their own pace. The lab also encourages group learning, where students can form groups and distribute their work.

To validate the idea and the usage of the lab, the researchers also conducted surveys at various institutions, with the results being mostly positive. They also conducted separate discussion sessions for some students with an instructor present, which further helped the students.

Funded by the Ministry of Human Resources Development’s ‘National Mission in Education through Information and Communication Technology’ initiative, the virtual lab at IIT KGP covers 28 diverse topics. New virtual labs are now being added in areas such as manufacturing, nanoscience, and bioscience, providing a new learning opportunity to many interested students.

Prof. Manchikanti believes this kind of virtual learning and remote instrument access removes some difficulties faced in traditional settings such as time constraints and lack of access to sophisticated equipment, which enhances learning.