Molecular insights into the complex mechanics of plant epidermal cell walls

Computational analysis of cell walls

Layers of intertwined fibers make up plant cell walls. The various types of fibers respond differently to deformation. Cellulose microfibrils, for example, can stretch or curve, changing their end-to-end length, and can also slide past each other, reorient relative directions, and bundle with neighboring microfibrils. Zhang et al. developed a computational model based on observations of onion skin epidermis that describes how these complex changes in space govern cell wall mechanics. The results inform ways to engineer multifunctional fibrous materials.

Science, this issue p. 706


Plants have evolved complex nanofibril-based cell walls to meet diverse biological and physical constraints. How strength and extensibility emerge from the nanoscale-to-mesoscale organization of growing cell walls has long been unresolved. We sought to clarify the mechanical roles of cellulose and matrix polysaccharides by developing a coarse-grained model based on polymer physics that recapitulates aspects of assembly and tensile mechanics of epidermal cell walls. Simple noncovalent binding interactions in the model generate bundled cellulose networks resembling that of primary cell walls and possessing stress-dependent elasticity, stiffening, and plasticity beyond a yield threshold. Plasticity originates from fibril-fibril sliding in aligned cellulose networks. This physical model provides quantitative insight into fundamental questions of plant mechanobiology and reveals design principles of biomaterials that combine stiffness with yielding and extensibility.

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