A virtual lab hosted by IIT Kharagpur is the first of its kind in India that lets students operate an instrument to analyse the structure of plant compounds through remote access via computers thereby countering the challenge of access to the method in many colleges.
The 'Plant Secondary Metabolites Virtual Lab' deals with secondary metabolites, the largest group of compounds produced by plants and credited with a multitude of functions in plant growth and development. Alkaloids, nicotine and cocaine are examples of such substances.
The procedure deployed to understand them, called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), is an analytical chemistry technique to separate, identify and quantify each component in a mixture. HPLC is routinely used for profiling compounds and helps in identification as well as isolation of compounds from plant extracts.
This method is also a component of the analysis for post-graduate and research students. Currently, it is being used for undergraduate curriculum as well.
"The novelty of the lab is not only in the simplification of learning the structure of compounds/pathways through simulation, hands-on-learning/ease-of-learning method but also in providing an individual-based remote access to HPLC analysis for qualitative and quantitative determination of the chemical compounds present in plant samples," Associate Professor at IIT-Kgp Padmavati Manchikanti told IANS.
"When students perform experiments with plants, they are curious to know the nature of bioactive compounds present. Access to HPLC is still a challenge in many institutes and colleges. There is a lack of trained manpower and in most cases a large percentage of cases students are shown demonstration in groups only," she said.
"By providing remote access to HPLC instrument, our virtual labs is a humble attempt to assist such labs in overcoming these difficulties faced by the students in their traditional labs," she said.
By linking the instrument from a remote location, the user will get a feeling of a real-time environment to operate HPLC. Access to the instrument is through authentication.
After the analysis is over, the user can interpret the data and can get accurate results.
Secondary metabolites are produced by plants in response to various stress factors such as drought stress, salinity stress, UV stress and pathogen attack. For example, flavonoids are an important source of dietary antioxidants for human health.
Virtual labs activities are part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development's project on education through the use of Information and Communication Technology initiative.