What conifer trees can show us about how organs are positioned in developing organisms

Speaker: David Holloway

Date: Wed, Sep 27, 2023

Location: PIMS, University of British Columbia, Zoom

Conference: Mathematical Biology Seminar

Subject: Mathematics, Mathematical Biology

Class: Scientific


One of the central questions in developmental biology is how organs form in the correct positions in order to create a functional mature organism. Plant leaves offer an easily observable example of organ positioning, with species-specific motifs for leaf arrangement (phyllotaxis). These patterns arise through a combination of chemical pattern formation, mechanical stresses and growth. Mathematical modelling in each of these areas (and their combinations) contributes to quantitative understanding of developmental mechanisms and morphogenesis in general. Conifer trees are some of the most characteristic plants of BC. They also display a type of ring patterning of their embryonic leaves (cotyledons), which I believe offers a unique route to understanding plant phyllotaxis in general. I will discuss how early work at UBC on similar patterning in algae led to application of reaction-diffusion models in conifer development. This framework has guided experiments at BCIT and recently led to a model that accounts for the natural variability in conifer cotyledon number. The model involves the kinetics of a highly conserved gene regulation module and therefore sheds light on the chemical pattern formation control of phyllotaxis across plants. Conifer patterning also demonstrates scaling of position to organism size, an active area of research in animal development: the model provides some mechanistic insight into how this can occur via chemical kinetics.