Cell death on celluloid

Ever wondered what 48 hours in the life and death of a cell looks like?

I guess most people’s answers to that questions might be “no”, but honestly – it’s fascinating. Programmed Cell Death (PCD) occurs in both plants and animals, and is quite often a tightly regulated series of events. Sometimes these events can be environmentally induced, as when cells are subjected to heat shock, but most often this can just be down to the normal everyday processes of tissue development.

Although largely well characterized, until now it has not been possible to visualize the sequence of events that occur throughout this process. In a new article published today in BMC Plant Biology, Jaime Wertman and colleagues from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, outline their efforts to document this cellular demise from beginning to end.

To do so, they first needed a suitable model organism: the Madagascan lace plant (Aponogeton madagascariensis) is an aquatic plant endemic to Madagascar, but also popularly grown in aquariums. Part of this popularity is its unique appearance, with perforated holes creating large, empty, skeletal leaves. This Swiss cheese-like appearance is also key to its use in studying PCD.

These perforations are the result of large-scale cellular death within the leaves which means that unlike in other plants, this process is highly predictable in both time and space. As a result, the latest techniques in long-term live cell imaging, time-lapse microphotography, and 3D imaging can be pin-pointed to specific areas of the plant to capture these events as they happen.

In this instance, the first sign of death is a loss of color – anthocyanin, the pigments responsible for red hues, disappear from the cell leaving only the greens of chlorophyll. After this, the cell’s architectural structure begins to disintegrate, and the cellular machinery responsible for energy production aggregates toward the centre. In a final gruesome twist, the cell then proceeds to eat itself, in a process known as autophagy.

The end result of this is a and striking leaf morphology that provides the ideal study system for researchers investigating the processes of cellular degradation.
To read more about this research, you can find images, videos and explanatory diagrams in the full article, or you can explore the BMC-series YouTube page to view the videos. You can also read the author’s take on their research, in an interview with our Press team.

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