Recently, I saw a small glass jar with something quite bizarre inside. I was at a friend’s house. Her living room is packed with succulents, large palms, ferns and Scindapsus hanging plants. They are on the walls, next to the television, above the sofa and on the windowsill. Yet, it was not the plants that caught my attention.
On the windowsill, between the Aloe Vera and a fern, a small glass jar was sparkling in the sunlight. It turned out to be filled with a colourless solution. In it were three small, white items that might shock some people. Maybe that’s why my friend placed them so prominent in her living room. The jar contains three embryos. When I looked closely, I saw little tails: the embryos are not human, but mice embryos.
Female mice grow embryos in their bellies, just like humans and some other animals. After birth, those embryos grow into an adult animal. But embryos are not unique to the animal world. In fact, many more embryos were present in my friend’s living room. And no, my girlfriend was not pregnant with triplets. But her plants do contain embryos.
Yes really. Just like humans and animals, plants grow from an embryo that is created when an egg cell is fertilized. I know what you’re thinking: “Where does the plant hide those little embryos?”. After all, plants do not have a uterus. Or do they? Plant, such as green beans, grow fruits that contains pockets. Those pockets are the equivalent of a uterus and are called ovules. An example of such ovules are the small peas in green beans. Over time, the ovules become seeds that will protect the little embryo from cold, wind, drought, and other harsh conditions.
This is not just a fun fact for your next pub quiz. Researchers around the world spend their time studying and unraveling the secrets of plant embryos. When scientists tinker with the DNA of human embryos, they can be sentenced to jail. But with plant embryos they can go nuts.
Cutting and pasting genes, creating Siamese twins, or a luminescent embryo. Crude and immoral in human embryos, but just another day at the office for plant embryos living in a lab. Strange mutants grow into mature plants, without anyone facing jailtime. While scientists undoubtedly enjoy it, they’re not just doing it for fun: they study all kinds of processes in the embryo.
Knowledge is power
Young embryos are made up of ‘basic’ cells. Yet, at some point, such a basic cell divides and suddenly one of the new cells is a stem cell – yes, plants too have stem cells. Using plant embryos, scientists study how stem cell are formed out of the basic cells. In addition, they can learn about how certain cell types arise and how plant cells divide. All this is easier to study in an embryo consisting of a clump of 16 cells, than in an adult plant containing millions. Unfortunately, scientists cannot apply the knowledge they gain from plant embryos to human or animal embryos. They are simply too different.
However, all the fundamental knowledge that researchers gain during studies of plant embryos is stored and published in scientific journals. With that knowledge, other scientists may be able to make super corn, extra thick trees or heat-resistant crops in the future. So, these plant embryos, of which so many people are unaware, are valuable.
It is a pity that plant embryos are so small that you cannot see them with the naked eye. Otherwise I would display them in a glass jar in my living room, like the mouse embryo’s in my friend’s apartment.
Read more about the importance of fundamental research
From fundamental research to an application