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Discovering the potential of plant stem cells

Over the past few decades, there has been an incredible buzz around stem cells, captivating the attention of scientists, medical professionals, and even the general public. Stem cells hold tremendous potential in the field of medicine, and they have been immersed in intense ethical debates, especially due to embryonic stem cells. These cells have the ability to self-renew and transform into specialized cell types, paving the way for the development of complex organisms.

Most of the spotlight has been centered on human and animal stem cells, but have you ever heard about plant stem cells? Even plants have their own version of these powerful cells! Plant stem cells not only possess regenerative abilities, but also have the potential to revolutionize various fields like agriculture, horticulture, and even medicine. In this article, we will discover plant stem cells by unraveling their unique characteristics, exploring their functions, and unveiling their potential and applications which are opening tons of new opportunities.

Differences and similarities between plant and animal stem cells

Plant and animal stem cells share some fundamental characteristics, but they also display notable differences in their properties and functions. Both types of stem cells possess the remarkable ability to self-renew, meaning they can divide and generate more stem cells. At the same time, they have the capacity to differentiate into specialized cell types, contributing to the formation of various tissues and organs during development or facilitating repair and regeneration processes (Figure 1) (Sablowski, 2004). However, one significant distinction lies in the greater plasticity observed in plant stem cells compared to animal stem cells.

Figure 1. Stem cells have the ability to self-renew and differentiate into specialized cell types (Chiu, 2016).

Plant stem cells exhibit extraordinary versatility and can often regenerate entire organs or even give rise to an entirely new plant through a phenomenon known as totipotency. This unique characteristic enables plants to regenerate from various tissues, including leaves, stems, and roots. In contrast, animal stem cells generally possess a more limited differentiation potential (Liu et al., 2023). While they are still capable of differentiating into a range of specialized cell types, their ability to regenerate whole organs or initiate the development of an entirely new organism is typically restricted.

Furthermore, the localization and organization of stem cells differ between plants and animals. Plant stem cells are organized within specific structures called meristems, which are responsible for the continuous growth and development of plants. These meristems serve as reservoirs of undifferentiated cells that constantly produce new cells for plant growth and maintenance. The primary meristems are located at the tips of stems and roots. These regions are known as apical meristems and are responsible for the primary growth of plants (Figure 2) (Petricka et al., 2012; Vernoux and Benfey, 2005).

Figure 2. Location and histology of the three major stem cell systems of the plant species Arabidopsis thaliana (Greb and Lohmann, 2023).

The shoot apical meristem is responsible for the growth in length of the stem, producing new leaves, branches, and flowers, and is protected by young leaves at the tip of the stem (Ha et al., 2010). The root apical meristem, on the other hand, is responsible for the growth in length of the root and the production of new root cells. It is protected by a root cap, which helps the root navigate through the soil (Motte et al., 2019). In addition to apical meristems, plants also possess lateral meristems, including the vascular cambium and cork cambium (Figure 2) (Greb and Lohmann, 2016). These meristems contribute to secondary growth, resulting in the thickening of plant stems, roots, and branches. The vascular cambium generates new vascular tissues, allowing for the transport of water, nutrients, and sugars, while the cork cambium produces protective outer layers such as bark (Zhang et al., 2014).

Plant stem cell potential

In recent years, plant stem cells have gained significant attention due to their potential and possibilities in various fields, including agriculture, medicine, and cosmetics.

In the field of agriculture, stem cells can be used for different purposes. For example, they have been used in micropropagation, a technique that involves growing new plants from small tissue samples, and that has been a game-changer in the agricultural industry (Cardoso et al., 2018). This technique is particularly beneficial for preserving rare and endangered plant species, as it is an easy way to propagate and conserve them. Moreover, plant stem cells also offer new possibilities for crop improvement through genetic modification. By manipulating the genes of plant stem cells, crops with better traits can be developed. These traits may include enhanced nutritional content, increased resistance to pests and diseases, and improved tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought, heat, and salinity. Developing genome-edited crops has the potential to address food security challenges by providing more resilient and nutritious food sources while reducing the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers (Rodríguez-Leal et al., 2017).

Figure 3. Advantages of plant stem cells (Aggarwal et al., 2020).

In the fields of medicine and cosmetics, plant stem cells have also shown great potential. For example, they can be used to extract various bioactive compounds that possess medicinal properties, such as antioxidant, and anti-cancer effects, among others. (Aggarwal et al., 2020; Schmid et al., 2008). The use of plant stem cells to extract these compounds offers a sustainable alternative to traditional medicinal plant sources, as they can be cultured without the need for herbicides, pesticides, or heavy metal-containing fertilizers. Additionally, cultivating plant stem cells requires minimal water compared to conventional agriculture practices (Figure 3). Their utilization not only provides practical benefits but also contributes to sustainable practices by reducing the reliance on scarce resources and minimizing environmental impact.


The discovery and understanding of plant stem cells have opened up new possibilities in agriculture, horticulture, and medicine. Even if plant stem cells are similar to animal stem cells, they have particular characteristics that make them unique. These remarkable cells possess regenerative potential and can be manipulated to enhance crop productivity, restore ecosystems, and develop novel therapeutic approaches, and without many ethical problems that are entangled in animal stem cells use.

As we continue to unravel the mysteries of plant stem cells, it is crucial to harness their power responsibly, ensuring sustainable use and preservation of our natural resources. By unlocking the secrets of plant stem cells, we are tapping into nature's regenerative abilities and embarking on a transformative journey toward a greener and healthier future.

Bibliographical references

Aggarwal, S., Sardana, C., Ozturk, M., and Sarwat, M. (2020). Plant stem cells and their applications: special emphasis on their marketed products. 3 Biotech 10, 291. Cardoso, J.C., Sheng Gerald, L.T., and Teixeira da Silva, J.A. (2018). Micropropagation in the Twenty-First Century. Methods Mol. Biol. 1815, 17–46. Greb, T., and Lohmann, J.U. (2016). Plant Stem Cells. Curr. Biol. 26, R816-21. Ha, C.M., Jun, J.H., and Fletcher, J.C. (2010). Shoot apical meristem form and function. Curr. Top. Dev. Biol. 91, 103–140. Liu, L., Qiu, L., Zhu, Y., Luo, L., Han, X., Man, M., Li, F., Ren, M., and Xing, Y. (2023). Comparisons between Plant and Animal Stem Cells Regarding Regeneration Potential and Application. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 24. Motte, H., Vanneste, S., and Beeckman, T. (2019). Molecular and Environmental Regulation of Root Development. Annu. Rev. Plant Biol. 70, 465–488. Petricka, J.J., Winter, C.M., and Benfey, P.N. (2012). Control of Arabidopsis root development. Annu. Rev. Plant Biol. 63, 563–590. Rodríguez-Leal, D., Lemmon, Z.H., Man, J., Bartlett, M.E., and Lippman, Z.B. (2017). Engineering Quantitative Trait Variation for Crop Improvement by Genome Editing. Cell 171, 470-480.e8. Sablowski, R. (2004). Plant and animal stem cells: Conceptually similar, molecularly distinct? Trends Cell Biol. 14, 605–611. Schmid, D., Blum, P., Belser, E., Zülli, F., and Schürch, C. (2008). Plant Stem Cell Extract for Longevity of Skin and Hair Plant Stem Cell Extract for Longevity. Int. J. Appl. Sci. 134, 30–35. Vernoux, T., and Benfey, P.N. (2005). Signals that regulate stem cell activity during plant development. Curr. Opin. Genet. Dev. 15, 388–394. Zhang, J., Nieminen, K., Serra, J.A.A., and Helariutta, Y. (2014). The formation of wood and its control. Curr. Opin. Plant Biol. 17, 56–63.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Plant stem cells – A solution to quickly regenerate youthful skin (2020). [Image]. Ron International. Retrieved June 15th, 2023, from Figure 1: Stem cells have the ability of self-renew and differentiate into specialized cell types. Chiu 2016 (2020) [Image]. Stem cells: An Overview. Brain Facts. Retrieved June 15th, 2023, from Figure 2: Location and histology of the three major stem cell systems of the plant species Arabidopsis thaliana. Greb and Lohmann (2016). [Image]. Plant Stem Cells. Curr. Biol. Retrieved June 15th, 2023, from Figure 3: Advantages of plant stem cells. Aggarwal (2020). [Image]. Plant stem cells and their applications: special emphasis on their marketed products. Biotech. Retrieved June 15th, 2023, from

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Ainoa Planas Riverola

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