ELIMÄKI Locus Is Required for Vertical Proprioceptive Response in Birch Trees

Curr Biol. 2020 Feb 24;30(4):589-599.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.12.016. Epub 2020 Jan 30.


Tree architecture has evolved to support a top-heavy above-ground biomass, but this integral feature poses a weight-induced challenge to trunk stability. Maintaining an upright stem is expected to require vertical proprioception through feedback between sensing stem weight and responding with radial growth. Despite its apparent importance, the principle by which plant stems respond to vertical loading forces remains largely unknown. Here, by manipulating the stem weight of downy birch (Betula pubescens) trees, we show that cambial development is modulated systemically along the stem. We carried out a genetic study on the underlying regulation by combining an accelerated birch flowering program with a recessive mutation at the ELIMÄKI locus (EKI), which causes a mechanically defective response to weight stimulus resulting in stem collapse after just 3 months. We observed delayed wood morphogenesis in eki compared with WT, along with a more mechanically elastic cambial zone and radial compression of xylem cell size, indicating that rapid tissue differentiation is critical for cambial growth under mechanical stress. Furthermore, the touch-induced mechanosensory pathway was transcriptionally misregulated in eki, indicating that the ELIMÄKI locus is required to integrate the weight-growth feedback regulation. By studying this birch mutant, we were able to dissect vertical proprioception from the gravitropic response associated with reaction wood formation. Our study provides evidence for both local and systemic responses to mechanical stimuli during secondary plant development.

Keywords: Betula; forward genetics; mechanosensing; proprioception; radial growth; trees; wood formation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Betula / genetics*
  • Betula / growth & development
  • Cambium / genetics
  • Cambium / growth & development*
  • Genes, Plant*
  • Mutation
  • Plant Stems / genetics
  • Plant Stems / growth & development*
  • Proprioception / genetics
  • Trees / genetics
  • Trees / growth & development