Their achievement, they said, offers biologists not only a new resource for exploring how complex plant tissues develop from a single cell. The analytical technique they used also will give biologists a basic tool for exploring how tissues arise from individual cells in other organisms. Also, said the scientists, the new information will contribute to more sophisticated efforts to genetically improve crop plants.
The researchers, led by Duke University molecular biologist Philip Benfey, published their findings in the December 12, 2003, issue of the journal Science. Besides Benfey, who is professor and chair of biology at Duke, other authors are Kenneth Birnbaum, Dennis Shasha and Jee Jung of New York University, Jean Wang of Duke, and Georgina Lambert and David Galbraith of the University of Arizona. The research was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
The widely studied Arabidopsis -- a member of the mustard family that includes cabbage and radish -- is considered to be the laboratory mouse of the plant kingdom. The small, prolific flowering plant grows easily and quickly and includes all the biological structures and functions typical of flowering plants.
Particularly important to Benfey and his colleagues is that the Arabidopsis root offers an easily observable and accessible model of the development of complex tissue from a single cell. Unlike the impossibly intricate convolutions and migrations of developing animal tissues, each new cell in the Arabidopsis root arises conveniently from its neighbor. Also, said Benfey, the root has a radial symmetry that makes identification of specific cells easy, and the number of cell types in the developing root is relatively small.