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First model of how buds grow into leaves

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2 March 2012

While leaves come in all shapes and sizes, scientists have discovered simple rules that control their shape during growth. Using this 'recipe', they have developed the first computer model able to accurately emulate leaf growth from a bud. The BBSRC-funded research will help to test predictions about plant growth and inform experimental strategies.


Modelling leaf shape  

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"A bud does not grow in all directions at the same rate, otherwise leaves would be domed like a bud, not flat with a pointed tip." said lead author Samantha Fox from the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park.

Plant cells have an inbuilt orientation system – a bit like a compass. Instead of a magnetic field, the cells have molecular signals to guide the axis on which they grow. As plant tissues grow, the orientation and axis changes. A leaf's molecular signals become patterned from an early stage within the bud, helping the leaf shape to emerge.

The researchers filmed a growing Arabidopsis leaf, a relative of oil seed rape, to help create a model which could simulate the growing process. They were able to film individual cells and track them as the plant grew. By creating a computer model to grow a virtual leaf, the BBSRC-funded scientists managed to discover simple rules of leaf growth.

Leaf bud. Image: iStockphoto Thinkstock
Leaf bud. Image: iStockphoto Thinkstock

It was also important to unpick the workings behind the visual changes and to test them in plants.

"The model is not just based on drawings of leaf shape at different stages," said corresponding author Professor Enrico Coen.

"To accurately recreate dynamic growth from bud to leaf, we had to establish the mathematical rules governing how leaf shapes are formed."

With this knowledge programmed into the model, developed in collaboration with Professor Andrew Bangham's team at the University of East Anglia, it can run independently to build a virtual but realistic leaf.

The model could now be used to help identify the genes that control leaf shape and whether different genes are behind different shapes.

"This simple model could account for the basic development and growth of all leaf shapes," said Fox.

"The more we understand about how plants grow, the better we can prepare for our future - providing food, fuel and preserving diversity."

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC said: "This exciting research highlights the potential of using computer and mathematical models for biological research to help us tackle complex questions and make predictions for the future. Computational modelling can give us a deeper and more rapid understanding of the biological systems that are vital to life on earth."



BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see:

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