Whereas the morphogenesis of developing organisms is relatively well understood at the molecular level, the contribution of the mechanical properties of the cells to shape changes remains largely unknown, mainly because of the lack of quantified biophysical parameters at cellular or subcellular resolution. Here we designed an atomic force microscopy approach to investigate the elastic modulus of the outer cell wall in living shoot apical meristems (SAMs). SAMs are highly organized structures that contain the plant stem cells, and generate all of the aerial organs of the plant. Building on modeling and experimental data, we designed a protocol that is able to measure very local properties, i.e. within 40-100 nm deep into the wall of living meristematic cells. We identified three levels of complexity at the meristem surface, with significant heterogeneity in stiffness at regional, cellular and even subcellular levels. Strikingly, we found that the outer cell wall was much stiffer at the tip of the meristem (5 ± 2 MPa on average), covering the stem cell pool, than on the flanks of the meristem (1.5 ± 0.7 MPa on average). Altogether, these results demonstrate the existence of a multiscale spatialization of the mechanical properties of the meristem surface, in addition to the previously established molecular and cytological zonation of the SAM, correlating with regional growth rate distribution.
© 2011 The Authors. The Plant Journal © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.