Protoplast technologies offer unique opportunities for fundamental research and to develop novel germplasm through somatic hybridization, organelle transfer, protoclonal variation, and direct insertion of DNA. Applying protoplast technologies to develop Dutch elm disease resistant American elms (Ulmus americana L.) was proposed over 30 years ago, but has not been achieved. A primary factor restricting protoplast technology to American elm is the resistance of the cell walls to enzymatic degradation and a long lag phase prior to cell wall re-synthesis and cell division.
This study suggests that resistance to enzymatic degradation in American elm was due to water soluble phenylpropanoids. Incubating tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L.) leaf tissue, an easily digestible species, in aqueous elm extract inhibits cell wall digestion in a dose dependent manner. This can be mimicked by p-coumaric or ferulic acid, phenylpropanoids known to re-enforce cell walls. Culturing American elm tissue in the presence of 2-aminoindane-2-phosphonic acid (AIP; 10-150 μM), an inhibitor of phenylalanine ammonia lyase (PAL), reduced flavonoid content, decreased tissue browning, and increased isolation rates significantly from 11.8% (±3.27) in controls to 65.3% (±4.60). Protoplasts isolated from callus grown in 100 μM AIP developed cell walls by day 2, had a division rate of 28.5% (±3.59) by day 6, and proliferated into callus by day 14. Heterokaryons were successfully produced using electrofusion and fused protoplasts remained viable when embedded in agarose.
This study describes a novel approach of modifying phenylpropanoid biosynthesis to facilitate efficient protoplast isolation which has historically been problematic for American elm. This isolation system has facilitated recovery of viable protoplasts capable of rapid cell wall re-synthesis and sustained cell division to form callus. Further, isolated protoplasts survived electrofusion and viable heterokaryons were produced. Together, these results provide the first evidence of sustained cell division, callus regeneration, and potential application of somatic cell fusion in American elm, suggesting that this source of protoplasts may be ideal for genetic manipulation of this species. The technological advance made with American elm in this study has potential implications in other woody species for fundamental and applied research which require availability of viable protoplasts.
Keywords: Hydroxycinnamic acid, 2-aminoindane-2-phosphonic acid, Protoplast, Cell wall, Digestibility, American elm