Life behind cell walls: paradigm lost, paradigm regained
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This review of the living cell wall  and its protein components is in two parts. The first is anecdotal. A personal account spanning over 40 years research may perhaps be an antidote to one stereotypical view of scientists as detached and humorless. The second part deals with the meaning of function, particularly as it applies to hydroxyproline-rich glycoproteins. Function is a difficult word to define objectively. However, with help from such luminaries as Humpty Dumpty: "A word means what I want it to mean, neither more nor less," and Wittgenstein: "Giving examples of usage ... is the only way to talk about meaning," it is possible to construct a ziggurat representing increasingly complex levels of organization from molecular structure to ecology. Forty years ago I suggested that hydroxyproline-rich structural proteins played a key role in cell wall functioning. But because the bulk of the wall is carbohydrate, there has been an understandable resistance to paradigm change. Expansins, paradoxically, contribute greatly to this resistance because their modus operandi as cell-wall-loosening proteins is based on the idea that they break hydrogen bonds between polysaccharide chains allowing slippage. However, this view is not consistent with the recent discovery [Grobe et al. (1999) Eur. J. Biochem 263: 33-40] that β-expansins may be proteases, as it implies that the extensin network is not a straightjacket but a substrate for expansin in muro. Such a direct role for extensins in both negative and positive regulation of cell expansion and elongation may constitute a major morphogenetic mechanism operating at all levels of plant growth and development.
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