Lighting up plant cells

30th Apr 2012

A new technique using fluorescence in living plant tissue and computer algorithms will contribute to better models for understanding how plants develop at a cellular level.

The new technique enables researchers to study how plant cells grow, divide and communicate with each other to form highly complex and specialised cellular networks. The newly developed technique will allow them to gain a greater understanding of plants’ ability to execute genetic codes and thereby coordinate their actions.

Plants are capable of creating far more sophisticated functional structures than any man-made materials and do it in a renewable way, which if it could be harnessed, would also be potentially very cheap.

By creating techniques allowing ever more detailed study of the cellular activity of plants, scientists believe it may be possible to reprogramme living systems - which has given rise to an emerging field known as synthetic biology; applying engineering principles to the building blocks of organic life. Synthetic biology is currently in its infancy and there is a need for improved techniques for measuring biological parameters within living cells.

This scientific breakthrough, developed by Dr Lionel Dupuy of the James Hutton Institute and colleagues from the University of Cambridge, may lead to the development of improved crop varieties through synthetic biology and genetic engineering.

He said: “Integrating genetic and computation methods have the potential to make biological sciences more quantitative and in the future, could be used to engineer robust genetic circuits in plants.”

This new technique, outlined in a paper published in the Nature Methods journal, uses fluorescent proteins and new algorithms to analyse cell activity. Proteins are used to mark and subsequently identify specific parts of cells - the nuclei and membrane - mapping the development, position and geometry of the cellular make-up in living plant tissue.

The researchers combine advanced imaging processes with algorithms that automate quantitative analysis of cell growth and genetic activity within living organisms to reconstruct cellular dynamics and produce a numerical description that can be used in computer models.

Research Paper : Integrated genetic and computation methods for in planta cytometry. Nature Methods (2012) doi:10.1038/nmeth.1940 Published online 1 April 2012

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