Min Wu, a researcher at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), received a $450,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop mathematical models describing how secretions and mechanical forces shape the growth of elongated plant cells.
The five-year project will focus on mathematical modeling of filamentous cell wall growth, which could lead to insights into plants and fungi that impact agriculture and human health, Wu said, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.
“How filamentous-walled cells grow is poorly understood, and it is difficult to observe and measure biological activity with experimental approaches alone,” Wu said. “Mathematical models can fill this knowledge gap. . The models could lead to a better understanding of how plant root hairs enter the soil for moisture and nutrients and how disease-causing fungi might be attacked.
Cell filaments such as moss cells in the juvenile stage maintain their growth at the tip and through a process known as exocytosis. During exocytosis, materials inside a cell cross the cell membrane and deposit deposits outside the cell.
Wu will develop two mathematical models to describe cellular activity and growth-related forces. A model will define how secretions from inside a cell and mechanical forces on cell walls influence the surface shapes of cell walls. A second model will define how patterns of novel cell wall materials in elongated cells regulate cell wall thickness under mechanical pressure. Wu will validate his models by comparing the predicted secretion profiles with experimental measurements.
“The fundamental question is how does a cell surface grow without changing shape,” Wu said. “The models will allow us to mathematically simulate cell wall growth and describe how exocytosis gives rise to the growth pattern of the cell wall, but this project will also look at how the cell wall retains its thickness, or three-dimensional shape, as it grows.”
The project extends Wu’s previous research, which used mathematics to analyze biological processes, such as wound healing and tumor growth. She has also modeled the development of living tissue on a large scale.
As part of his project, Wu will work with Luis Vidali, an associate professor in the Department of Biology and Biotechnology, to validate his models. It will expand its research mentoring activities with undergraduate and graduate students, and it will create an open source teaching and learning platform called “Filaform” with courses that emphasize the connections between mathematics and biology.
“I want to teach students that the transdisciplinary way of thinking about the world is very natural,” Wu said. “This platform will merge math and biology from a geometric perspective to encourage students to make that connection.”