Electron microscopy (EM) techniques enable identification of the main accumulations of lead (Pb) in cells and cellular organelles and observations of changes in cell ultrastructure. Although there is extensive literature relating to studies on the influence of heavy metals on plants, Pb tolerance strategies of plants have not yet been fully explained. Allium sativum L. is a potential plant for absorption and accumulation of heavy metals. In previous investigations the effects of different concentrations (10-5 to 10-3 M) of Pb were investigated in A. sativum, indicating a significant inhibitory effect on shoot and root growth at 10-3 to 10-4 M Pb. In the present study, we used EM and cytochemistry to investigate ultrastructural alterations, identify the synthesis and distribution of cysteine-rich proteins induced by Pb and explain the possible mechanisms of the Pb-induced cellular defense system in A. sativum.
After 1 h of Pb treatment, dictyosomes were accompanied by numerous vesicles within cytoplasm. The endoplasm reticulum (ER) with swollen cisternae was arranged along the cell wall after 2 h. Some flattened cisternae were broken up into small closed vesicles and the nuclear envelope was generally more dilated after 4 h. During 24-36 h, phenomena appeared such as high vacuolization of cytoplasm and electron-dense granules in cell walls, vacuoles, cytoplasm and mitochondrial membranes. Other changes included mitochondrial swelling and loss of cristae, and vacuolization of ER and dictyosomes during 48-72 h. In the Pb-treatment groups, silver grains were observed in cell walls and in cytoplasm, suggesting the Gomori-Swift reaction can indirectly evaluate the Pb effects on plant cells.
Cell walls can immobilize some Pb ions. Cysteine-rich proteins in cell walls were confirmed by the Gomori-Swift reaction. The morphological alterations in plasma membrane, dictyosomes and ER reflect the features of detoxification and tolerance under Pb stress. Vacuoles are ultimately one of main storage sites of Pb. Root meristematic cells of A. sativum exposed to lower Pb have a rapid and effective defense system, but with the increased level of Pb in the cytosol, cells were seriously injured.