Plant Programmed Cell Death


Programmed cell death (PCD) is a fundamental biological process in plant cells. Indeed, all multicellular organisms need a cellular death process to be able to regulate cell numbers, to direct developmental processes, defend themselves against pathogens or to eliminate unwanted or damaged cells. In plants, PCD is governed by genetic signals and environmental cues and operates from the embryogenic beginning of a plants' life to the final whole plant death processes. The study of PCD is an expanding discipline in plant sciences as an understanding of the core regulatory processes involved in plant PCD may facilitate breeding programmes that modify the timing or intensity of PCD events. The ability to breed for a more efficient PCD may have a profound impact on our capacity to support crop species and maintain yields, in rapidly changing environments. This article reviews the methods used to study PCD in plants and outlines our current understanding of PCD regulation.

Key Concepts

  • Programmed cell death (PCD) is a fundamental process in plants. It is involved in defence, development and response to stress.
  • Regulation of PCD is genetic with a significant role played by environmental stimuli.
  • Plant programmed cell death has many similarities to animal apoptosis – chromatin and nDNA fragmentation, cell shrinkage, contraction of the cytoplasm, mitochondrial swelling and release of mitochondrial‐based proteins.
  • Plants have unique cellular components – cell walls, chloroplasts and a large central vacuole – which play roles in plant PCD.
  • Retraction of the protoplast during PCD results in a distinctive morphology that can be used as a quantifiable reporter of PCD.
  • Reactive oxygen species (ROS) play a role in the induction, signalling and execution of plant PCD. Fine tuning of ROS governs PCD responses to stress.
  • A cells' sensitivity to triggering PCD is impacted by previous stress experience, age and prevailing environmental conditions.

Keywords: programmed cell death (PCD); model plant PCD systems; root hair assay; tracheary elements; chloroplast; mitochondria; senescence

Figure 1. Typical cellular changes observed during plant PCD. Though the origin of pro‐PCD (programmed cell death) signals and the type of cell targeted can vary greatly, there are a number of characteristics that are believed to be common to all plant cells undergoing PCD. Initially, signalling molecules such as Ca2+ and ROS stimulate cellular changes such as mitochondrial permeability and cytosolic pH shifts, which result in the activation of endonucleases and proteases. Cells which have undergone PCD will exhibit morphological and molecular characteristics which can be used as markers of PCD, for example PM collapse, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) fragmentation, cytochrome c release and cell wall modifications. C, chloroplast; M, mitochondria; N, nucleus; ROS, reactive oxygen species; TE, tracheary element.
Figure 2. AL‐PCD morphology in different cell types. (a) Fern rhizoid, (b) fern gametophyte prothallus cells, (c) root cap, (d) root hair. The AL‐PCD morphology is induced by a heat shock (a, b and d) or is the result of a developmental PCD (c). This choice of images shows AL‐PCD morphology in diverse plant lineages (angiosperms and pteridophytes) and in cells with and without chloroplasts. Bars are 100 µm.
Figure 3. Schematic illustration describing the response of plant cells to increasing levels of stress. Typically, a cells' response to stress is determined by the severity of the stress encountered. At low levels of stress, cells can acclimate. At moderate levels of stress, cells can initiate a PCD pathway. At higher levels, still cells experience damage which leaves them incapable of survival or initiating a PCD pathway.


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Further Reading

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De Pinto MC, Locato V and De Gara L (2012) Redox regulation in plant programmed cell death. Plant, Cell & Environment 35: 234–244.

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Conway, T John, and McCabe, Paul F(Jan 2018) Plant Programmed Cell Death. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001689.pub3]