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Plant J. 2016 Jan;85(2):179-92. doi: 10.1111/tpj.13102.

Spatial organization of cellulose microfibrils and matrix polysaccharides in primary plant cell walls as imaged by multichannel atomic force microscopy.

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Department of Biology and Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, Penn State University, 208 Mueller Laboratory, University Park, PA, 16802, USA.


We used atomic force microscopy (AFM), complemented with electron microscopy, to characterize the nanoscale and mesoscale structure of the outer (periclinal) cell wall of onion scale epidermis - a model system for relating wall structure to cell wall mechanics. The epidermal wall contains ~100 lamellae, each ~40 nm thick, containing 3.5-nm wide cellulose microfibrils oriented in a common direction within a lamella but varying by ~30 to 90° between adjacent lamellae. The wall thus has a crossed polylamellate, not helicoidal, wall structure. Montages of high-resolution AFM images of the newly deposited wall surface showed that single microfibrils merge into and out of short regions of microfibril bundles, thereby forming a reticulated network. Microfibril direction within a lamella did not change gradually or abruptly across the whole face of the cell, indicating continuity of the lamella across the outer wall. A layer of pectin at the wall surface obscured the underlying cellulose microfibrils when imaged by FESEM, but not by AFM. The AFM thus preferentially detects cellulose microfibrils by probing through the soft matrix in these hydrated walls. AFM-based nanomechanical maps revealed significant heterogeneity in cell wall stiffness and adhesiveness at the nm scale. By color coding and merging these maps, the spatial distribution of soft and rigid matrix polymers could be visualized in the context of the stiffer microfibrils. Without chemical extraction and dehydration, our results provide multiscale structural details of the primary cell wall in its near-native state, with implications for microfibrils motions in different lamellae during uniaxial and biaxial extensions.


atomic force microscopy; cell wall models; cellulose microfibrils; electron microscopy; nanomechanical mapping; pectin; primary cell wall architecture

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