Differences in membrane selectivity drive phloem transport to the apoplast from which maize florets develop

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Background and Aims

Floral development depends on photosynthetic products delivered by the phloem. Previous work suggested the path to the flower involved either the apoplast or the symplast. The objective of the present work was to determine the path and its mechanism of operation.


Maize (Zea mays) plants were grown until pollination. For simplicity, florets were harvested before fertilization to ensure that all tissues were of maternal origin. Because sucrose from phloem is hydrolysed to glucose on its way to the floret, the tissues were imaged and analysed for glucose using an enzyme-based assay. Also, carboxyfluorescein diacetate was fed to the stems and similarly imaged and analysed.

Key Results

The images of live sections revealed that phloem contents were released to the pedicel apoplast below the nucellus of the florets. Glucose or carboxyfluorescein were detected and could be washed out. For carboxyfluorescein, the plasma membranes of the phloem parenchyma appeared to control the release. After release, the nucellus absorbed apoplast glucose selectively, rejecting carboxyfluorescein.


Despite the absence of an embryo, the apoplast below the nucellus was a depot for phloem contents, and the strictly symplast path is rejected. Because glucose and carboxyfluorescein were released non-selectively, the path to the floret resembled the one later when an embryo is present. The non-selective release indicates that turgor at phloem termini cannot balance the full osmotic potential of the phloem contents and would create a downward pressure gradient driving bulk flow toward the sink. Such a gradient was previously measured by Fisher and Cash-Clark in wheat. At the same time, selective absorption from the apoplast by the nucellar membranes would support full turgor in this tissue, isolating the embryo sac from the maternal plant. The isolation should continue later when an embryo develops.

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