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22 Volume
1-2 Number
2009 Year
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The Ideal Hub for a Maize Geneticist

Michael J. Scanlon, Plant Biology Scanlon
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How Do Plants Generate and Continue Making New Organs throughout Their Life Cycle?

Shoot Meristems’ Amazing Ability

I study plant development—specifically the way plants make shoot meristems and how meristems make organs. A shoot meristem is a ball of organogenic cells, a tiny mass at the tip of the plant shoot, that is responsible for all of the above-ground development of the plant—leaves, flowers, everything above ground. In maize, one of the larger shoot meristems that researchers study, the mass is about the size of the ball tip on a ballpoint pen.

Unlike animals, plants continue to make new organs throughout their life cycle. This ability to remain embryogenic throughout its life cycle is due to meristems. Meristems do two things: they generate new, diverse organs, and they maintain themselves—an amazing ability. We focus specifically on trying to figure out how these two fundamental processes work. It is very complex. This is like a stem cell population in plants. We use classical genetics (mutations) and genomic approaches to look at global gene expression—and hopefully in the near future, protein accumulation in the meristem.

Clarifying Stem Cells in Plants

Although some researchers in plant development do not like to use the term “stem cell” when referring to plants, the practice has become popular. Some properties of animal stem cells and meristem stem cells are the same. Both are developmentally naive and are able to differentiate into all the various cell types found in the mature plant. In this sense, the terminology fits. The meristem, formed in the embryo, is anything that has expansive growth. The meristmatic region at the base of a stem causes expansive growth at the stem, for example. This is meristmatic growth—expansive growth—but it is not generating new organs. It is the shoot meristem that is responsible for generating new organs. The shoot meristem is a special type of meristem that contains what we think of as stem cells, because it is able to differentiate into all kinds of organs of the shoot.

Explaining Genetic Memory

How can we map out the steps from an undifferentiated zygote, a single cell, to a beautifully differentiated and functioning mature plant? How do we understand all the interactions: external and internal, environmental and genetic, and signaling inside of cells? We can describe what happens during the steps, but even getting to that was not trivial. We still do not understand some forms and their variations or how they develop. This is the right time to explore the mechanisms underlying how this all happens and even more exciting, how plants can package the information into a tiny seed that has everything ready to happen again. How do these cells, the single zygotes, remember what to do in the next generation? This genetic memory is fascinating—it is how the whole genome interacts with itself and with the environment. This is what we, all plant developmental biologists, would love to discover! It probably will not happen in my lifetime, but I want to make a contribution to getting there.

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