The Shape of Plants to Come
Our lives and much of our technology depend on the shape of plants and their cells. Wood products, cotton, dietary fibre, and paper all reflect the unique properties of plant cells that enable them to expand in diverse ways. Understanding the basic mechanisms that underlie the growth and development of plant cells is an essential first step toward harnessing their biotechnological potential.
As Canada Research Chair in Plant Cell Biology, Dr. Geoffrey Wasteneys is discovering factors that shape plant cells. Combining molecular genetics with state of the art microscopy, his research has already identified proteins that drive the cell-shaping machinery.
In structure, plant cell walls closely resemble advanced composite materials like Kevlar, with microscopic cellulose polymers embedded in a matrix substance. Mechanical properties of plant cell walls are determined through interactions between cellulose and matrix components. These interactions are in turn regulated by processes occurring within the cell that are co-ordinated by a network of filamentous proteins known as the cytoskeleton. The major area of Dr Wasteneys' research is concentrated on understanding how the cytoskeleton regulates cell wall composition, structure, and mechanical properties.
Part of Dr. Wasteneys' research program is also devoted to developing fertilization-independent seed production in crop plants. The idea is to stimulate specialized cells to revert to stem cell status and then develop into embryos. This occurs naturally in certain plants, but rarely in agriculturally important ones. Enabling crop plants to produce seed without fertilization will have enormous benefits for propagating large numbers of hybrid seeds, which is currently not practical in major Canadian crops like wheat.
Dr. Wasteneys is using an innovative combination of technologies to gain a clearer understanding of the subcellular mechanisms that shape plant cells and that enable specialized cells to be reprogrammed into embryos. Identifying and understanding the complexity of these mechanisms will lead to biotechnological applications ranging from the improvement of fibre properties for the forestry industry to the harnessing of fertilization-independent seed production for agriculture.