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J Exp Bot. 2011 Jan;62(3):841-53. doi: 10.1093/jxb/erq366. Epub 2010 Dec 30.

Composition differences between epicuticular and intracuticular wax substructures: how do plants seal their epidermal surfaces?

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Department of Botany, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Blvd, Vancouver V6T 1Z4, Canada.


The protective wax coating on plant surfaces has long been considered to be non-uniform in composition at a subcellular scale. In recent years, direct evidence has started to accumulate showing quantitative compositional differences between the epicuticular wax (i.e. wax exterior to cutin that can be mechanically peeled off) and intracuticular wax (i.e. wax residing within the mechanically resistant layer of cutin) layers in particular. This review provides a first synthesis of the results acquired for all the species investigated to date in order to assign chemical information directly to cuticle substructures, together with an overview of the methods used and a discussion of possible mechanisms and biological functions. The development of methods to probe the wax for z-direction heterogeneity began with differential solvent extractions. Further research employing mechanical wax removal by adhesives permitted the separation and analysis of the epicuticular and intracuticular wax. In wild-type plants, the intracuticular (1-30 μg cm(-2)) plus the epicuticular wax (5-30 μg cm(-2)) combined to a total of 8-40 μg cm(-2). Cyclic wax constituents, such as triterpenoids and alkylresorcinols, preferentially or entirely accumulate within the intracuticular layer. Within the very-long-chain aliphatic wax components, primary alcohols tend to accumulate to higher percentages in the intracuticular wax layer, while free fatty acids and alkanes in many cases accumulate in the epicuticular layer. Compounds with different chain lengths are typically distributed evenly between the layers. The mechanism causing the fractionation remains to be elucidated but it seems plausible that it involves, at least in part, spontaneous partitioning due to the physico-chemical properties of the wax compounds and interactions with the intracuticular polymers. The arrangement of compounds probably directly influences cuticular functions.

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