Stem cells decide their fate in stunning video of growing root

Dazzling blue lights stretch on, reaching out to a sight unseen.

It’s a video of a plant root growing.  We can watch as the nucleus of a cell divides into two, and then fade when completed.

The video is beautiful, but it provides something more than aesthetic value: researchers created the timelapse to understand how stem cells choose a developmental path.

The research has been published in Nature.

“Cells need to have a program during development: first divide like this, then divide like that,” said Pablo Szekely, a biologist at Duke University. “It has to be tightly regulated in order for everything to work.”

But how do stem cells – the cells in the body which can form into any cell type – decide which cell they’ll become?

Using a mustard plant (Arabidopsis thaliana ) the researchers focused in on two key proteins that are important for stem cell division.

The proteins – or transcription factors – are aptly named SCARECROW (SCR) and SHORTROOT (SHR), and together they prompt the root stem cells to stop dividing into more stem cells, and instead make one copy of itself and one of a more specialised root cell.

The team labelled SCR and SHR with fluorescent tags, and then took images every 15 minutes for 48 hours to understand how SCR and SHR work in these roots.

Unexpectedly, the video showed that only a small amount of SCR and SHR delivered early in the process was enough to switch the stem cells into producing the specialised cells.

“All they have to do is reach a certain threshold,” said Szekely.

While this is just a plant study, humans also have similar stem cell processes, and understanding one might take us closer to understanding the other. Animals and plants even have many of the same ‘housekeeping’ genes that are necessary for cells to function.

For now, while more research is being done, it’s nice that we can enjoy a video of a root slowly growing, stem cell by stem cell.

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