Cells transform from one type into another and activation of a particular set of genes dictates how cells specialize in performing specific tasks and determines when they divide or when they differentiate. 

“Now we know that the cell not only contains traditional organelles delineated by a membrane but many molecular processes are confined inside less defined membrane-less organelles, also called biomolecular condensates (biocondensates). During the last ten years, the importance of these biocondensates has started being recognized. We now contribute to this field by showing how a specific type of biocondensate forms at the end of meiosis and inhibits protein synthesis,” explains Albert Cairó, the first author of new research that uncovered a previously unknown mechanism in plant meiosis. “This, on the one hand, terminates the meiotic processes, but on the other hand, it marks the beginning of a genetically different generation of cells."

The research team believes that analogous mechanisms also act in other organisms and cellular settings, including cell differentiation or stress responses. And it can help now. There have always been have and have-not countries and regions for growing food. It is easy for a country like France to focus on the organic growing process when they were born in a natural "breadbasket" and can afford to import food from Russia with organic stickers. Other countries are not so lucky and need science to help against high temperatures, drought, and pests.

 “The research findings show that biomolecular condensates play an important role in plant fertility, and their behavior is likely linked to environmental stress. It is therefore obvious that our discovery is the first step into developing new solutions resulting in sustained crop production under harsher conditions,” says Cairó. 

The path to the discovery

Studying meiosis in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana meant focusing on cells hidden in 0.1-0.4 mm small floral buds. The meiotic division stages that are the study's focus occur fast – the whole process takes five to six hours. The team had to establish conditions for live imaging of meiotic division inside the anther (the part of the stamen that contains pollen). The team used advanced microscopy and became one of the two labs in the world that were able to observe plant meiosis live.

Another piece of essential expertise the team acquired was the mastery of protoplast technology. Protoplasts are isolated plant cells that have been deprived of their surrounding cell wall, which makes them easy to genetically manipulate and visualize under the microscope. This technology allowed the team to elucidate some problems more quickly and efficiently than using meiotic cells.