High-Resolution Laser Scanning Reveals Plant Architectures that Reflect Universal Network Design Principles

Cell Syst. 2017 Jul 26;5(1):53-62.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cels.2017.06.017.


Transport networks serve critical functions in biological and engineered systems, and yet their design requires trade-offs between competing objectives. Due to their sessile lifestyle, plants need to optimize their architecture to efficiently acquire and distribute resources while also minimizing costs in building infrastructure. To understand how plants resolve this design trade-off, we used high-precision three-dimensional laser scanning to map the architectures of tomato, tobacco, or sorghum plants grown in several environmental conditions and through multiple developmental time points, scanning in total 505 architectures from 37 plants. Using a graph-theoretic algorithm that we developed to evaluate design strategies, we find that plant architectures lie along the Pareto front between two simple length-based objectives-minimizing total branch length and minimizing nutrient transport distance-thereby conferring a selective fitness advantage for plant transport processes. The location along the Pareto front can distinguish among species and conditions, suggesting that during evolution, natural selection may employ common network design principles despite different optimization trade-offs.

Keywords: 3D scanning; Pareto optimality; biological trade-offs; plant shoot architectures; transport network design.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Biological Evolution
  • Lasers
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Models, Biological*
  • Plant Physiological Phenomena
  • Solanum lycopersicum / anatomy & histology*
  • Sorghum / anatomy & histology*
  • Tobacco / anatomy & histology*