Unlike animal cells, plant cells are surrounded by a stiff shell called the cell wall. Cell walls are composed of two main types of material: cellulose, the strong fibers that make up paper, and a pectin gel, which holds everything together.
In order for plants to grow, the cell wall has to yield to the pressure inside the cell and allow stretching. The direction of individual cell growth in plants is thought to be controlled by the direction of cellulose fibers in the wall; if they wrap around the cell like hoops on a barrel, the cell can only grow ‘up’ and not ‘out’. Cellulose direction is dictated by the orientation of tracks inside the cell called microtubules. Another recent idea says that the pectin gel can control growth direction; if the side walls of a cell have less gelling they can elongate more, increasing upward growth. What had not been examined is whether cellulose and pectin might both contribute to directional growth.
Young seedlings emerge from the soil through the directional growth of the young stem, or hypocotyl. Using advanced microscopy, nano-materials testing, genetics techniques and computational models Bou Daher et al. studied the hypocotyl of a commonly studied plant called Arabidopsis thaliana. The results demonstrate that not only do both components of the cell wall control growth, but they work together from different tissues within the plant. The orientation of microtubules (and hence cellulose fibers) in cells in the inner tissues of the hypocotyl combines with pectin gelling in the outer tissue layer to produce fast, directional growth.
Understanding how directional growth is achieved could enable us to change it in useful ways. This could lead to a number of agricultural improvements. For example, many seedlings are lost as they first grow through the soil to reach the light, so improving directional growth could increase crop yields. In order to do this, researchers would need to explore how common the co-operative mechanism Bou Daher et al. have discovered is in other plant species (such as soybean, corn and wheat) and in other plant organs (like the adult stem and the roots).
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