Agroecology 2 min

New insights into the secret of plant growth

PRESS RELEASE - Unlike animals, plants have cells that are all surrounded by a strong wall. This protects them but also encloses them in a rigid skeleton. So how can they grow despite this wall? Scientists from INRAE and the CNRS, in collaboration with Swiss and Belgian teams, have now unlocked part of this secret. Veritable architects, plants combine sugars and proteins to give the wall its strength and extensibility and enable cells to grow. As well as providing new knowledge, these results, published on 10 November in Science, are of crucial importance for modelling and predicting the effects of environmental changes on plant growth.

Published on 10 November 2023

illustration New insights into the secret of plant growth
© INRAE - Nicolas Bertrand

Plants have the extraordinary ability to use solar energy to convert atmospheric CO2 into sugars. These sugars constitute an almost inexhaustible source of energy and also serve as building blocks.

With these blocks, plants build a rampart around each cell: the cell wall.

This wall acts both as a protective barrier and as a support for a pressurised skeleton. The latter lends rigidity to the plant's organs, like an inflatable mattress. In fact, the wall is so strong that it can withstand considerable pressure inside the cell, up to 10 times that of our atmosphere. Surprisingly, the presence of this wall does not prevent the cells from enlarging as the plant grows.

So the following question arises: how can this wall grow without losing its integrity, which would cause the cell to explode? To understand this mechanism, the scientists analysed the assembly process of this wall in detail.

To this end, they studied the growth of the pollen tube of thale cress, a popular model plant. Its cell wall comprises two major components, namely fibres and a matrix, mainly made up of pectins. Pectins are well known for their role as gelling agents in jam-making!

An INRAE team had already discovered that once deposited in the wall, pectins swell following a chemical transformation, allowing the wall to expand.

Now the same team has shown that these swollen pectins, covered with negative charges, behave like small magnets. And magnets attract each other, negative with positive. In this case, the positive charge that binds to these pectins are proteins in the wall. This creates a network that gives the wall its strength and extensibility.

In plants in which this protein is altered, the network does not form and during growth the pollen tube explodes under the pressure of the cells.

Image au microscope d'un tube pollinique
3D image of a molecularly labelled Arabidopsis thaliana pollen tube. The green signal shows the web-like structure formed by pectin polysaccharides in conjunction with cell wall protein complexes. This protein-regulated physical arrangement provides a support system for sustained plant cell growth. © Ursina Rathgeb © DBMV-UNIL

These results are fundamental to our understanding of plant growth mechanisms. They are also of great importance for modelling and predicting the effects of environmental changes on the growth of cultivated plants.


Thanks to these results, researchers are currently developing numerical models to simulate and predict plant growth and morphogenesis as a function of changes in the environment, such as those associated with climate change. More reliable models can be built with an explicit biophysical mechanism for cell growth.


Moussu S. et al. (2023). Plant cell wall patterning and expansion mediated by protein-peptide-polysaccharide interaction. Science 382,719-725(2023). DOI:  


INRAE Press Office

Scientific contact

Herman Höfte Jean-Pierre Bourgin Institute (INRAE, AgroParisTech, université Paris Saclay)


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