The nonlinear mechanics of highly extensible plant epidermal cell walls

Jingyi Yu, Yao Zhang, Daniel J. Cosgrove

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Plant epidermal cell walls maintain the mechanical integrity of plants and restrict organ growth. Mechanical analyses can give insights into wall structure and are inputs for mechanobiology models of plant growth. To better understand the intrinsic mechanics of epidermal cell walls and how they may accommodate large deformations during growth, we analyzed a geometrically simple material, onion epidermal strips consisting of only the outer (periclinal) cell wall, ~7 μm thick. With uniaxial stretching by >40%, the wall showed complex three-phase stress-strain responses while cyclic stretching revealed reversible and irreversible deformations and elastic hysteresis. Stretching at varying strain rates and temperatures indicated the wall behaved more like a network of flexible cellulose fibers capable of sliding than a viscoelastic composite with pectin viscosity. We developed an analytic framework to quantify nonlinear wall mechanics in terms of stiffness, deformation, and energy dissipation, finding that the wall stretches by combined elastic and plastic deformation without compromising its stiffness. We also analyzed mechanical changes in slightly dehydrated walls. Their extension became stiffer and more irreversible, highlighting the influence of water on cellulose stiffness and sliding. This study offers insights into the structure and deformation modes of primary cell walls and presents a framework that is also applicable to tissues and whole organs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2316396121
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General

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