Background: Individual plant cells are encased in a cell wall. To enable cell-to-cell communication, plants have evolved channels, termed plasmodesmata, to span thick walls and interconnect the cytoplasm between adjacent cells. How macromolecules pass through these channels is now beginning to be understood.
Results: Using two green fluorescent protein (GFP) reporters and a non-invasive transfection system, we assayed for intercellular macromolecular traffic in leaf epidermal cells. Plasmodesmata were found in different states of dilation. We could distinguish two forms of protein movement across plasmodesmata, non-targeted and targeted. Although leaves have generally been considered closed to non-specific transport of macromolecules, we found that 23% of the cells had plasmodesmatal channels in a dilated state, allowing GFP that was not targeted to plasmodesmata to move into neighboring cells. GFP fusions that were targeted to the cytoskeleton or to the endoplasmic reticulum did not move between cells, whereas those that were localized to the cytoplasm or nucleus diffused to neighboring cells in a size-dependent manner. Superimposed upon this non-specific exchange, proteins that were targeted to the plasmodesmata could transit efficiently between 62% of transfected cells.
Conclusions: A significant population of leaf cells contain plasmodesmata in a dilated state, allowing macromolecular transport between cells. Protein movement potential is regulated by subcellular address and size. These parameters of protein movement illustrate how gradients of signaling macromolecules could be formed and regulated, and suggest that non-cell-autonomous development in plants may be more significant than previously assumed.