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How Plants Grow: Chemical and Physical Interactions Create Developmental Patterns

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Plants grow from meristems, collections of stem cells found at the apical tip of each shoot, and at the base of each root. The shoot apical meristem (SAM) is the source all of the parts of the plant found above ground, and therefore is responsible for most of our food, fiber, and even atmospheric oxygen. How this collection of a few hundred stem cells makes, over time, a highly patterned plant, with dozens of cell types, is becoming known. We use live imaging, genetic and environmental alterations, and computational modeling to understand how plant cells communicate in the Arabidopsis shoot apical meristem.

One pattern generated by the SAM has held a fascination for generations of scientists. This is the phyllotactic pattern, the pattern of leaves and flowers around the stem. The most common such pattern is the spiral phyllotactic pattern, which creates the highly recognizable organization of compound fruits such as pineapples, of flowers like roses, and of inflorescences such as sunflowers. The model plant Arabidopsis thaliana also has a spiral phyllotaxis, and we have used genetic, genomic, and cell biological approaches to learn in detail how the cells of the SAM generate this pattern. It has long been known that there is a key chemical signal, the plant hormone auxin. We have learned how dynamic feedbacks in auxin transport lead to the phyllotactic pattern and have detailed computational models that explain many classical observations. One key aspect of the models is communication between cells not only of chemical information, but also of mechanical stresses, which serve a regulatory function in auxin transport. This aspect of the model has led to new experiments, which show that mechanical as well as chemical signals are central to plant development.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Philosophical Society series.

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