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7.3.1 - Wall structure and expansion

The wall is an intricate network of polymers that, when capable of expanding, is termed the primary wall. The secondary wall is formed underneath the primary wall when it has finished expanding, and is thicker. The secondary wall is elastic and can shrink or swell but not expand irreversibly like the primary wall.

a) Structure of the primary wall – growing cells

Primary walls are composed predominantly of a complex array of polysaccharides (~90%) and some protein (~10%). In all cell types, rigid cellulose microfibrils are embedded in a gel-like matrix of non-cellulosic polysaccharides and pectins. These polysaccharides are intimately associated with one another, both non-covalently and covalently, and often with proteins and lignins. Walls are complex, diverse and dynamic, changing throughout the processes of cell division, growth and differentiation. The types of wall polysaccharides vary depending on the plant species, cell type and developmental stage (Doblin et al. 2010). In some woody tissues, the secondary wall can be very thick and make up more than half the total volume of the cell.

Growing cells are surrounded by thin walls (100 nm or less) that are sufficiently flexible to yield to the hydrostatic forces that drive growth. The primary walls are highly hydrated (~60% of wet weight) and in dicots and gymnosperms consist of a cellulosic network embedded in a matrix of complex polysaccharides, of which xyloglucans and pectic polysaccharides are most abundant (Figure 7.22). Primary walls of most monocots are organised in essentially the same way except glucans and glucuronylarabinoxylans predominate in the matrix phase and may have properties similar to xyloglucans and pectins.


Figure 7.22 Structure and organisation of the primary cell wall. Simplified schematic, drawn-to-scale and showing the spatial arrangement of polymers in a pectin-rich primary cell wall. (MC McCann and K Roberts, In ‘The cytoskeletal basis of plant growth and form’ Academic Press, 1991)

The main wall constituent that allows the primary wall to expand is the gel-like matrix in which the cellulose microfibrils are embedded. Typically consisting of xyloglucans and pectins, attention is increasingly directed toward the pectins because mutant Arabidopsis plants (xxt1 and xxt2) still can grow even though they totally lack xyloglucans (Cavalier et al. 2008). On the other hand, the genes for pectins have proliferated during the evolution of land plants and Arabidopsis has 15 involved in the synthesis of linear pectins, and 10 more that resemble these genes. Some of their mutants are lethal, especially mutants in GAUT1 and GAUT4 that are the major ones coding for enzymes synthesising linear pectins (Caffal et al., 2009). This suggests a central role for the pectins in the wall. The cellulose does not contribute directly to the growth process and instead mostly strengthens the wall. As a polysaccharide consisting of a linear chain of several hundred to many thousands of β(1–4) linked D-glucose units, it spontaneously crystallises in cellulose microfibrils having about 20 cellulose chains assembled into long cables a few nanometers in diameter. These are cross-linked by hydrogen bonds to a matrix of hemicellulose and pectin along with a small amount of structural protein. The microfibrils have a high tensile strength approaching that of steel, and their orientation in the wall determines the shape of the expansion. When laid down in an orientation perpendicular to the long axis of the cell, lateral expansion is inhibited and the wall extends mostly lengthwise. The longitudinal extension stretches the matrix between the microfibrils, spreading the microfibrils apart. The orientation of the microfibrils thus controls cell shape while the matrix controls growth rate.

b) Structure of the secondary wall – fully grown cells

The secondary wall is laid down underneath the primary wall when it has finished expanding, that is, when the cell has stopped growing. The secondary wall is elastic, it can shrink or swell and undergo reversible but not irreversible expansion. In some woody tissues, the secondary wall can be quite thick and be over half the total volume of the cell.


Figure 7.23 Schematic representation of the wall of a fully grown cell, showing the cellulose microfibril orientation in the primary (P) and secondary (S1, S2, S3) wall layers of a xylem fibre cell or a tracheid. (AB Wardrop and DE Bland, In ‘Biochemistry of Wood’ Pergamon Press, 1959)

Cells that have ceased enlarging and are required to withstand large compressive forces mature by depositing secondary walls up to several micrometers thick that increase the wall strength and reduce flexibility (Figure 7.23). During secondary wall development cellulose and matrix phase polysaccharides with a lower degree of backbone substitution, such as heteroxylans and heteromannans, are deposited in a highly ordered pattern. Together with the deposition of lignin this results in a dehydration of the wall material, which becomes increasingly hydrophobic in nature. In some cell types, lignin is also deposited throughout the wall during secondary development. Hydrophobic lignins overlie and encrust the cellulose microfibrils and matrix polysaccharides, and can also be covalently complexed with wall polysaccharides (Doblin et al. 2010). The character of these cells controls woodworking properties of stems of trees and can ward off pathogens that might attack the wood.