Wood-forming cells magnified 3000x showing thick fibrous material surrounding the cells. It is the cellulose fibres in this material that gives the plant stem its strength
New research is inspiring the design of new biomaterials
In 1665 Robert Hooke famously used early advances in microscopy to discover that plants are made up of tiny cells, each surrounded by a wall. Now, 350 years later, the latest microscopes have helped us to understand how the plant cell wall is made. It is well known that the wall is made of long fibers of cellulose which are spun by an astonishing molecular machine called the cellulose synthase complex. The complex must move through the cell membrane collecting the cellulose building blocks from inside the cell, and assembling them into long chains on the outside. "The complex itself is huge and its movement through the cell membrane, while it makes cellulose, is like driving a mountain through the ocean” says SLCU microscopist Raymond Wightman. The results of a collaboration between Dr Wightman, Microscopy Core Facility Manager at the Sainsbury Laboratory, and the Universities of Dundee and Manchester have recently been published, describing the discovery that the cellulose synthase complex is decorated with 100s of acyl groups that allow it to move more smoothly through the cell membrane.
The findings come after recently published work led by SLCU researchers investigating the other molecules, apart from cellulose, that make up the plant cell wall in different tissues, giving unique properties to different walls in different parts of the plant as it grows and develops. Understanding how these different walls are built will help us understand how plants grow and also to make new biomaterials from plant cell walls, adding to those we know and love like wood and paper.