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Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) 2003 awards

"Developmental Modeling and Informatics - A 'Computable Plant'"

September 2003

Literary critic Henry Tuckerman wrote 150 years ago, "To analyze the charms of flowers is like dissecting music; it is one of those things which it is far better to enjoy than to attempt to understand."

Well, Mr. Tuckerman, times have changed. To analyze how a flower - or a leaf - forms, a research team headed by computer scientist Eric Mjolsness of the University of California at Irvine is merging genetic data, marker proteins, modification of genes, mathematical models, and computerized visualization to create a "computable plant."

Through an NSF Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research project, the team is focusing on a staple of recent genetic studies, the mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana, The project will track cell-by-cell changes in the mustard plant's meristem - the tissue in which cells actively divide and then differentiate into specialized cells. With fluorescent proteins marking specific cell types in specially designed transgenic plants, researchers will be able to trace the development of leaves and flowers.

Images of this process will be automatically gathered and analyzed, helping researchers to model patterns in the meristem and to simulate developmental processes under different conditions. Predictions based on the simulations will then be tested in experiments involving mutants and altered hormone levels.

While the project demonstrates how a complex model can predict the experiment and how the experiment can refine the model, it may also prove, Mr. Tuckerman, that it is possible both to enjoy and attempt to understand flowers.

Lead principal investigator (University of California, Irvine):
Eric Mjolsness, (949) 824-3533,

Participating institutions:

  • University of California, Irvine (Mjolsness, Pierre Baldi)
  • California Institute of Technology (Elliot Meyerowitz, Bruce Shapiro)
  • Huntington Botanical Gardens (James Folsom)
  • Institute for Cytology and Genetics, Novosibirsk, Russia (Nikolay Kolchanov)

Media contact at UC Irvine: Tom Vasich, (949) 824-6455,

Total funding (est.), through August 2008: $4,939,322

Helpful web site: Computable Plant Home Page:

Award abstract:

The FIBR projects announced today include the following:

Return to news release.

three successive groups of cell divisions
Three successive groups of cell divisions - first green, then red, then yellow - are plotted on an image of a meristem.
Image courtesy of V. Gonehal
Select image for larger version
(Size: 80KB)

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Screen capture from animation showing the development of the shoot apical meristem cell membranes

compuplant1 streaming video

This video shows the development of the shoot apical meristem (SAM) cell membranes, made visible with auxin transporter tagged with fluorescent proteins. Successive images have been computationally scaled to a common size and orientation, taking out the overall movement and growth in order to visualize individual cells and their division by new membranes over a short time interval.
Video courtesy of Marcus Heisler, Meyerowitz Lab, Caltech.

Screen capture from a three-dimensional reconstruction showing cell membranes of the shoot apical meristem

compuplant2 streaming video

This video, a three-dimensional reconstruction, shows cell membranes of the shoot apical meristem.
Video courtesy of Marcus Heisler, Meyerowitz Lab, Caltech.

Larger versions (Total Size: 583KB) of all images from this document

 Note About Images


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