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Plant and animal stem cells: similar yet different

Key Points

  • Plant stem cells, as in animals, are maintained in specialized microenvironments, which are known as stem cell niches, where local signals from organizer cells act to prevent stem cell differentiation. Interestingly, committed stem cell progeny in plants also provide versatile feedback signals to their stem cell progenitors, thus becoming an indispensable component of the niche.

  • Plant stem cell niches are positioned within an organized group of dividing cells that are known as the meristem. In the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, the shoot apical meristem and the root meristem are responsible for almost all the growth that occurs post-embryonically.

  • Despite their similar organization, the RB protein is the only known protein involved in stem cell function that is conserved between the animal and plant kingdoms. Control of stem cell differentiation in plants involves a conserved module of peptide–receptor signalling that counteracts homeodomain transcription factor activity from the organizer cells.

  • Both in plants and animals the position of a functional stem cell niche needs to be maintained within a dynamic structure. Also in plants, in which the position of a stem cell niche can be observed with cellular resolution from early embryonic stages onwards, several positional cues have been identified that involve crosstalk between hormone signalling, microRNAs and transcription factors.

  • The root and shoot stem cell niche organizers not only control the activity of surrounding stem cells but also regulate differentiation of distant transit-amplifying cells that sustain coherent organ growth. As observed in several animal stem cell niches the plant organizers have the ability to replace (damaged) stem cells.

  • The A. thaliana shoot organizing cells consist of a constantly changing pool of cells that are apically replenished by stem cell progeny, while shedding cells towards differentiation basally. The root organizing cells can act as long-term stem cells by replacing damaged stem cells, which ensures stem cell niche longevity.


The astonishingly long lives of plants and their regeneration capacity depend on the activity of plant stem cells. As in animals, stem cells reside in stem cell niches, which produce signals that regulate the balance between self-renewal and the generation of daughter cells that differentiate into new tissues. Plant stem cell niches are located within the meristems, which are organized structures that are responsible for most post-embryonic development. The continuous organ production that is characteristic of plant growth requires a robust regulatory network to keep the balance between pluripotent stem cells and differentiating progeny. Components of this network have now been elucidated and provide a unique opportunity for comparing strategies that were developed in the animal and plant kingdoms, which underlie the logic of stem cell behaviour.

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Figure 1: Comparing stem cell niches in animals and plants.
Figure 2: Organization of the shoot and root stem cell niches.
Figure 3: Maintenance of the stem cell niche.
Figure 4: Positioning the stem cell niche.


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The authors thank B. Scheres, M. Tsiantis and P. Costantino for their valuable comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by The European Research Council (to S.S.) and the Netherlands Genomics Initiative/Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (to R.H.).

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Correspondence to Sabrina Sabatini.

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PowerPoint slides


Anticlinally dividing cells

Cells in which the division plane is perpendicular to the surface of the organ, thus maintaining a single cell layer.


In vascular plants, the stele is the central part of the root or stem that contains the vascular tissues.


Specialized root cells that are involved in gravity-sensing mechanisms.

Hub cell

Specialized cell of the Drosophila melanogaster testes that is necessary to maintain the adjacent stem cell.

Paneth cell

Specialized cell of the intestinal epithelium, which secretes factors that sustain the self-renewal capacity of the contacting stem cell.

E2F transcription factor

Member of a family of transcription factors that, by interacting with other proteins, control cell cycle progression.


Microscopic channels that traverse the cell wall of plant cells, which enables transport and communication between them.


Transmembrane protein that mediates attachment between an animal cell and its surroundings, such as cells or the extracellular matrix.


(Anaphase-promoting complex; also known as the cyclosome). An E3 ubiquitin ligase protein complex that targets cell cycle proteins for degradation by the 26S proteasome, thus enabling cell cycle progression.

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Heidstra, R., Sabatini, S. Plant and animal stem cells: similar yet different. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 15, 301–312 (2014).

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