Plant Vacuoles


Most plant cells contain one or several vacuoles, which may occupy up to 95% of the cellular space. The vacuoles often appear empty under a light microscope (hence their name), except when they contain pigments or precipitated substances. The vacuole is delimited from the cytosol by the vacuolar membrane, which is also called tonoplast. Vacuoles are compartments of the secretory pathway derived from the endoplasmic reticulum and the Golgi apparatus. Their function include the storage of ions, sugars, proteins and xenobiotics. They also participate in volume changes during growth and development, movements such as stomata opening and closing and the maintenance of internal turgor pressure for the mechanical stiffness of green tissues. Although most plant cells have a single central vacuole, some cells have two different vacuoles with different contents and functions. Vacuole biogenesis is a complicated process involving several intermediate compartments, vesicle trafficking and fusion.

Key Concepts:

  • The large central vacuole plays an important role in temporary storage of metabolites, thus allowing keeping the metabolite levels constant in the cytosol.

  • Plant cells can harbour two different types of vacuoles with different contents and functions.

  • Vacuoles are compartments of the secretory pathway and derive their membrane (tonoplast) and protein content from the ER via the Golgi apparatus and pre‚Äźvacuolar compartments. Some storage vacuoles may however derive directly from the ER.

  • Toxic compounds are preferentially stored in the large central vacuole, since in this compartment they do not interfere with plant metabolism.

Keywords: tonoplast; targeting; sequestration; storage; lytic

Figure 1.

Electron microscopic view of apple leaf cells possessing two different types of vacuoles (V1 containing a network of thick strands and a bright fringe, and V2). The other labelled structures are cell wall (CW), plasma membrane (PM), nucleus (N) with nucleolus (Nu), nuclear envelope (NE) with pores (Po), multivesicular body (MB) and dictyosomes (D). This figure was reprinted from Michel M, Gnägi H and Müller M (1992) Diamonds are a cryosectioner's best friend. Journal of Microscopy166: 43–56, with permission of the Royal Microscopical Society.

Figure 2.

Vacuole biogenesis in plants. Compartments of the secretory pathway are indicated: endoplasmic reticulum (ER); Golgi; trans‐Golgi network/early endosome (TGN/EE); pre‐vacuolar compartment/multivesicular body (PVC/MVB); storage pre‐vacuolar compartment (sPVC); plasmalemma; and three types of vacuoles: storage vacuole (PSV, salmon), lytic vacuole (LV, light blue) and the hybrid central vacuole. The anterograde pathway from ER to Golgi involves either COP II vesicles (1) or COP II‐independent (CCV?) vesicles (2). Retrograde transport from Golgi to ER involves COP I vesicles (3). Seed storage protein transport involves either dense precursor‐accumulating vesicles (PAC) forming from the ER and bypassing the Golgi (4) or dense vesicles (DV) forming on cis or medial Golgi cisternae (5). Golgi to TGN transport is probably a maturation process leading to the separation from the Golgi stack (6). Retrograde TGN to ER transport is mediated by the retromer (7). Transport from the TGN to either PVC is mediated by CCV (?) (8). Retrograde transport (recycling) from the PVC to the TGN is mediated by an unknown mechanism (9). Transport of PVC to vacuoles is thought to be mediated by direct fusion once the PVC's maturation process is finished (10). In most cells, which have a single central vacuole, the same PVC may be used by both types of vacuolar proteins (11). By default, soluble (and membrane?) proteins are transported from the TGN to the plasmalemma by secretory vesicles (12). Endocytosed proteins are transported by CCV to the TGN/EE.

Figure 3.

Vacuolar transport systems. Pumps (red), transporters (green) and channels (blue) of the vacuolar membrane. For malate it is unclear whether a transporter or a channel is involved. Some channels are regulated by calmodulin, cyclic ADP‐ribose (cADPR) or inositol trisphosphate (IP3), as indicated. GS‐X, glutathion‐conjugated xenobiotics. The picture is not exhaustive; for more details see text and the literature cited.



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Further Reading

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Zhao J and Dixon RA (2010) The ins and outs of flavonoid transport. Trends in Plant Science 15: 72–80.

Zouhar J and Rojo E (2009) Plant vacuoles: where did they come from and where are they heading? Current Opinion in Plant Biology 12: 677–684.

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How to Cite close
Neuhaus, Jean‐Marc, and Martinoia, Enrico(Sep 2011) Plant Vacuoles. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001675.pub2]