Although it is a central question in biology, how cell shape controls intracellular dynamics largely remains an open question. Here, we show that the shape of Arabidopsis pavement cells creates a stress pattern that controls microtubule orientation, which then guides cell wall reinforcement. Live-imaging, combined with modeling of cell mechanics, shows that microtubules align along the maximal tensile stress direction within the cells, and atomic force microscopy demonstrates that this leads to reinforcement of the cell wall parallel to the microtubules. This feedback loop is regulated: cell-shape derived stresses could be overridden by imposed tissue level stresses, showing how competition between subcellular and supracellular cues control microtubule behavior. Furthermore, at the microtubule level, we identified an amplification mechanism in which mechanical stress promotes the microtubule response to stress by increasing severing activity. These multiscale feedbacks likely contribute to the robustness of microtubule behavior in plant epidermis.
The surfaces of plants are covered in epithelial cells that come in many different shapes, suggesting that individual cells must have some control over their own shape. An unusually shaped epithelial cell is the pavement cell, which looks like a jigsaw puzzle piece and is found in the leaves of many flowering plants. Relatively little was known about the exact contribution of mechanical properties of the wall to this shape. Furthermore, although it was known that parts of pavement cells are rich in microtubules—tubes of protein that act as a scaffold inside the cell— the possibility that shape impacts the behavior of microtubules was not fully addressed.
Now, using a combination of computer modelling and experiments, Sampathkumar et al. reveal that the shape of the pavement cells relies in part on the response of the microtubules to stress. In an individual cell, microtubules align along the direction of the largest stress, with a protein severing those microtubules that are not aligned in this direction. As the stress inside a cell is determined in part by the cell’s shape, this sets up a feedback loop: the stress resulting from the cell shape aligns the microtubules that reinforce the cell wall, thus maintaining the shape of the cell.
An external stress applied to the epithelium can override this internal stress. Because all of the plant cells are under turgor pressure from the inside, pressure from the outside, like squeezing a balloon, changes the stress pattern, causing the realignment of the microtubules so as to resist the new stress. This shows that the microtubules respond to local stresses within a cell, and are continually responsive to stress changes.