A major feature of embryogenesis is the specification of stem cell systems, but in contrast to the situation in most animals, plant stem cells remain quiescent until the postembryonic phase of development. Here, we dissect how light and metabolic signals are integrated to overcome stem cell dormancy at the shoot apical meristem. We show on the one hand that light is able to activate expression of the stem cell inducer WUSCHEL independently of photosynthesis and that this likely involves inter-regional cytokinin signaling. Metabolic signals, on the other hand, are transduced to the meristem through activation of the TARGET OF RAPAMYCIN (TOR) kinase. Surprisingly, TOR is also required for light signal dependent stem cell activation. Thus, the TOR kinase acts as a central integrator of light and metabolic signals and a key regulator of stem cell activation at the shoot apex.
Plants are able to grow and develop throughout their lives thanks to groups of stem cells at the tips of their shoots and roots, which can constantly divide to produce new cells. Energy captured from sunlight during a process called photosynthesis is the main source of energy for most plants. Therefore, the amount and quality of light in the environment has a big influence on how plants grow and develop. An enzyme called TOR kinase can sense energy levels in animal cells and regulate many processes including growth and cell division. Plants also have a TOR kinase, but it is less clear if it plays the same role in plants, and whether it can respond to light.
Plant stem cells only start to divide after the seed germinates. In shoots, a protein called WUSCHEL is required to maintain stem cells in an active state. Here, Pfeiffer et al. studied how shoot stem cells are activated in response to environmental signals in a plant known as Arabidopsis. The experiments show that light is able to activate the production of WUSCHEL independently of photosynthesis via a signal pathway that depends on TOR kinase. The stem cells do not directly sense light; instead other cells detect the light and relay the information to the stem cells with the help of a hormone called cytokinin.
Further experiments show that information about energy levels in cells is relayed via another signal pathway that also involves the TOR kinase. Therefore, Pfeiffer et al.’s findings suggest that the activation of TOR by light allows plant cells to anticipate how much energy will be available and efficiently tune their growth and development to cope with the environmental conditions. Future challenges are to understand how TOR kinase is regulated by light signals and how this enzyme is able to act on WUSCHEL to trigger stem cell division.