NYU biologist identifies gene that regulates how plant cells proliferate and organize to form root systems

During the life cycle of plants and animals, a single cell produces a multicellular organism with many different specialized cell types. But how does it happen? How and why does asymmetrical cell division -- in which a single cell divides into two daughter cells with different characteristics -- happen? These are fundamental questions, and they are the primary research focus of NYU plant molecular biologist Philip N. Benfey.

Benfey works with plants because there is a relatively small number of different tissue types in plants as compared to animals. In particular, Benfey is interested in the root systems of plants. This is again for reasons of simplicity. The root has a simple radial structure, its growth is continuous, it is transparent and there are a small number of cell types.

In the May 26 issue of Cell, Benfey reports that he has identified a gene that governs how plant cells proliferate and organize to form root systems.

According to Benfey, the research has important implications for both biology and bioengineering. Benfey's article is entitled "The SHORT-ROOT Gene Controls Radial Patterning of the Arabidopsis Root through Radial Signaling." In the Cell article, Benfey reports that the Arabidopsis plant's SHORT-ROOT (SHR) gene governs asymmetric cell division in the root's cortex and endodermis (the layer of cells that regulates what chemicals are absorbed into the plant.)

In addition, Benfey found that the SHR gene governs the specific characteristics of the endodermis. By manipulating where in the plant the SHR gene was expressed, the researchers were able to manipulate the number of endodermal cell layers made in the root.

Benfey said, "Our findings have potential biotechnology applications and also implications for evolutionary biology."

"Our research findings might be used to improve such agronomic traits as tolerance for salinity and reliance on fertilizer. Because roots normally grow underground, it is very diffic

Contact: Josh Plaut
New York University

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