Modern sculptors might want to take a few notes from Mother Nature. The striking, stone-like forms that you see above are a micrograph of flower buds from the mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which serves as an important model organism in biomedical research. In the center are the shoot apical meristems, consisting of undifferentiated stem cells (gray) that give rise to the flowers. Around the edge are buds that are several hours older, in which the flowers have just begun to form off of the shoot apical meristems. And, to the bottom left, are four structures that are the early sepals that will surround the fully formed flower that will bloom in a few weeks. The colored circles indicate areas of gene activity involved in determining the gender of the resulting flower, with masculinizing genes marked in green and feminizing in red.
This image, a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2015 BioArt competition, is the creation of postdoctoral student Nathanaёl Prunet, now in the NIH-supported lab of Elliot Meyerowitz at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA. Using scanning electron microscopy, Prunet snapped multiple 2D photographs of Arabidopsis buds at different tissue depths and computationally combined them to produce this 3D image.
Arabidopsis, which was the first plant to have its genome sequenced back in 2000, has been used by biological researchers for decades to study pattern formations in development. Like humans, many plants start as a single fertilized cell. As that cell divides, its cellular progeny differentiate into various types of cells in a highly patterned way that, if all goes according to plan, produces all of the right flower parts in all of the right positions. Understanding how this happens in a system that is easy to manipulate genetically, such as Arabidopsis, provides fundamental insights into biological issues that relate to human development and is already helping to inform many areas of biomedical science, such as regenerative medicine.
Understanding plant biology is also critical for human nutrition. As Meyerowitz notes, a large part of the human diet consists of flower parts, such as fruits and grains. But how flowers originally came to be remains an evolutionary mystery. They appear suddenly in the fossil record about 130 million years ago, and researchers continue to pore over the genomes of Arabidopsis and many other plants for clues.
Meyerowitz Lab (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA)
BioArt (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)
2015 BioArt Exhibit, NIH Visitor Center and Nobel Laureate Exhibit Hall
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences