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Curr Biol. 2016 Jun 6;26(11):1385-94. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.067. Epub 2016 May 5.

Patterns of Stem Cell Divisions Contribute to Plant Longevity.

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Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern, 3013 Bern, Switzerland; Department of Biophysics and Morphogenesis of Plants, University of Silesia in Katowice, 40-032 Katowice, Poland.
Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern, 3013 Bern, Switzerland.
Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern, 3013 Bern, Switzerland. Electronic address:


The lifespan of plants ranges from a few weeks in annuals to thousands of years in trees. It is hard to explain such extreme longevity considering that DNA replication errors inevitably cause mutations. Without purging through meiotic recombination, the accumulation of somatic mutations will eventually result in mutational meltdown, a phenomenon known as Muller's ratchet. Nevertheless, the lifespan of trees is limited more often by incidental disease or structural damage than by genetic aging. The key determinants of tree architecture are the axillary meristems, which form in the axils of leaves and grow out to form branches. The number of branches is low in annual plants, but in perennial plants iterative branching can result in thousands of terminal branches. Here, we use stem cell ablation and quantitative cell-lineage analysis to show that axillary meristems are set aside early, analogous to the metazoan germline. While neighboring cells divide vigorously, axillary meristem precursors maintain a quiescent state, with only 7-9 cell divisions occurring between the apical and axillary meristem. During iterative branching, the number of branches increases exponentially, while the number of cell divisions increases linearly. Moreover, computational modeling shows that stem cell arrangement and positioning of axillary meristems distribute somatic mutations around the main shoot, preventing their fixation and maximizing genetic heterogeneity. These features slow down Muller's ratchet and thereby extend lifespan.

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