S Duran-Nebreda, IG Johnston, GW Bassel
Journal of the Royal Society Interface 17 20200137 (2020)
We need roads. Roads link up different parts of our society, allowing us to send messages and supplies from one region to another. But they come at a cost. If we lay down a road across the country, we can't use that land to farm or build houses, and maintaining roads costs a lot of tax money.
Multicellular organisms have the same issue. They also need to send supplies (e.g. nutrients) and messages (e.g. chemical signals) from one place to another. So they build roads. Our blood vessels are one example, transporting oxygen and hormonal messages throughout our bodies. So-called vasculature -- our blood vessels are one example, as are xylem and phloem in plants -- is used to allow transport around an organism. But again, if some parts of the organism are being used for transport, they can't be used for doing other useful things.
Given this cost of producing "roads", organisms would presumably like to be efficient as possible when laying out their transport systems. This may involve, for example, making journey lengths as short as possible while using as little land as possible for roads. But while city planners and engineers can look at maps and run simulations to work out how best to place roads, organisms lack a top-down "planner" with a large-scale map. How then do organisms efficiently resolve this tradeoff? Specifically, how is it decided where best to place vasculature to minimise the effective distance between cells?
We took a look at this using a theoretical model where an organism's tissue is modelled as a collection of cells in a 2D layer, a 3D block, or an intermediate case involving a set of layers, or a more realistic structure taken from experimental characterisation of plant tissues. We considered different ways that an organism might produce vasculature by fusing together cells in this model tissue to make "roads". This method for making vasculature models the case in immobilised cells, like we find in plants. We considered different ways that cells might be chosen to fuse, based on the physical structure of the tissue, and allowing some randomness in this decision.
How has this plant made efficient "roads" (vasculature, like the veins seen here) without having a map of the whole leaf? We found that it can do a pretty good job without a global map, just using local sensing.
We found that using a "top-down" planner (with a map of all cells – which organisms don't have!) to choose which cells to fuse is usually the best way of producing an efficient transport network. But, we found that "bottom-up" approaches, where cells fuse based on purely local information (as opposed to a global map of the whole tissue) can actually do almost as well as the top-down planner. Strikingly, we found that these bottom-up approaches can provide "scale-free" improvements in transport. This means that the amount by which having more roads decreases journey lengths doesn't depend on the overall size of the system. The transport improvements from vasculature were more pronounced in 3D than in 2D, and the best approach for vasculature production varied in the different plant tissues we looked at. This suggests that there may be some evolutionary back-and-forth between the rules that plants use to create vasculature and the form of their tissues, which we plan to explore further in future!