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Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU) Robinson Group: Using biomechanics to uncouple the processes of plant growth


Supervisor: Sarah Robinson (Sainsbury Lab)

Project outline:

Plant cells are surrounded by rigid cell walls, making the relationship between cell division and cell expansion complex. Cell expansion requires the wall to extend and, therefore, depends upon how extensible it is and the forces that are acting on it, such as those due to turgor pressure. Cell expansion increases the size of the cell with little increase in biomass. On the other hand, cells divide by adding more cell walls, increasing biomass with little increase in cell volume. Understanding this relationship may, therefore, enable us to improve the balance between plant size and biomass. The Robinson lab aims to investigate how cell division affects cell expansion and its impact on overall tissue morphology. The lab uses the newly developed automated confocal micro-extensometer (ACME) and atomic force microscopy (AFM), in combination with genetic manipulation, live imaging and modelling to address this question.

Members of the team will benefit from the multi-disciplinary project and are encouraged to participate and develop skills in different areas. The Sainsbury laboratory provides an excellent environment for interacting with people from different disciplines and developing new skills. Within this project, there are opportunities for students to receive training in advanced image analysis, computational modelling, confocal imaging and biomechanics. Students will also be able to participate in the community at SLCU, including many outreach and social groups. More about the Sainsbury Laboratory and details of what the University offers to employees can be found at:


  • Robinson, S. and Kuhlemeier, C. (2018) Global compression reorients cortical microtubules in Arabidopsis hypocotyl epidermis and promotes growth. Current Biology (2018) 28:1794–1802.
    A quantitative assessment of microtubule responses to in-plane application of mechanic forces was conducted and compared to the stresses predicted from a finite element model.
  • Robinson, S., Huflejt, M., Barbier de Reuille, P., Braybrook, S.A, Schorderet, M., Reinhardt, D., Kuhlemeier, C. (2017) An automated confocal micro-extensometer enables in vivo quantification of mechanical properties with cellular resolution. The Plant Cell 29:2959-2973.
    We expand the possibility of making quantitative mechanical measurements in the plane of the tissue while live imaging with a confocal microscope.
  • Robinson, S., Barbier de Reuille, P., Chan, J., Bergmann, D.C., Prusinkiewicz, P., and Coen, E.S. (2011) Generation of spatial patterns through cell polarity switching. Science 333:1436-1440.
    - by combining modelling with time-lapse imaging we are able to predict the pattern of cell division and inherited cell identity in a growing leaf.



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