The plant stomatal lineage manifests features common to many
developmental contexts: precursor cells are chosen from an
initially equivalent field of cells, undergo asymmetric and self-
renewing divisions, communicate among themselves and
respond to information from a distance. As we review here, the
experimental accessibility of these epidermal lineages,
particularly in Arabidopsis, has made stomata a conceptual and
technical framework for the study of cell fate, stem cells, and cell
polarity in plants.
Key words: Stomatal development, Cell polarity, Intercellular
Developmental models distill essential problems faced by cells,
tissues and organisms into simplified and experimentally accessible
systems. Stomata (the epidermal valves that mediate gas exchange
between plants and the atmosphere) and the lineage from which
they are derived have emerged as a pre-eminent model for
answering questions about cell fate and pattern in plants. Stomata
are present in all large land plants and are crucial for allowing the
intake of atmospheric carbon dioxide (used for photosynthesis)
while minimizing plant water loss. This balance is achieved both
by physiological modulation of stomatal pore aperture and through
developmental control over the proliferation and distribution of
stomatal precursors (Nadeau and Sack, 2002a).
Stomata are distributed on the surfaces of above-ground organs
and consist of two epidermally derived sister guard cells (GCs; see
Glossary, Box 1) surrounding a pore that leads to an airspace in the
mesophyll cell layers below. The making and patterning of stomata
requires processes fundamental to developmental biology: cell fate
specification, cell-cell communication, asymmetric and stem cell-
like divisions, and the creation of cell polarity (Bergmann and Sack,
2007; Pillitteri and Torii, 2012). Because the epidermis is readily
accessible for examination, and because a wealth of genetic and
molecular tools is available for studying the model plant
Arabidopsis thaliana, stomatal development provides an excellent
system with which to study these fundamental developmental
processes. In this Primer (see Box, Development: the big picture),
we review the abundant molecular genetic data and highlight the
broadly applicable regulatory themes that have emerged from
studies of stomatal development.
An overview of stomatal development in
Plant leaves develop in an approximate tip-to-base gradient, with
cell division prevalent at the base of the leaf and differentiation
occurring near the tip. In Arabidopsis, stomatal production roughly
follows this trend, but is ultimately organized by the behaviors of
a specialized epidermal cell lineage (Nadeau and Sack, 2002a;
Bergmann and Sack, 2007; Pillitteri and Torii, 2012). This stomatal
lineage consists of five major cell types (Fig. 1): meristemoid
mother cells (MMCs; see Glossary, Box 1), meristemoids (see
Glossary, Box 1), stomatal lineage ground cells (SLGCs; see
Glossary, Box 1), guard mother cells (GMCs; see Glossary, Box 1)
and GCs. The lineage-founding MMCs are derived from a subset
of protodermal cells, although the selection process is not well
understood and might even be stochastic. MMCs undergo
asymmetric divisions to produce small, often triangular-shaped,
meristemoids and larger sister SLGCs. When arising from
protodermal cells, these divisions are referred to as entry divisions
(see Glossary, Box 1). Meristemoids have limited self-renewing
properties (Box 2) and can carry out additional asymmetric
divisions, termed amplifying divisions (see Glossary, Box 1),
which regenerate the meristemoid and create another SLGC.
Because these cells are defined by the daughters they produce, this
renewing meristemoid is also an MMC. Meristemoids typically
divide only a few times before differentiating into a GMC. GMCs,
recognizable by their distinctive rounded morphology, undergo a
single symmetric division and cell fate transition to form a pair of
GCs, the terminal cells in the lineage. The fate of the SLGCs
produced in the entry and amplifying divisions is complex; they
may differentiate into pavement cells (interdigitated cells that
provide the waterproof covering of plant leaves; see Glossary, Box
1), but may also divide asymmetrically to create secondary or
satellite meristemoids. Although called the ‘stomatal lineage’, the
ability of meristemoids and SLGCs to continue divisions means
that this lineage is actually responsible for generating the majority
of the epidermal cells in the leaves (Geisler et al., 2000).
Developmental flexibility in response to the environment, or
recovery from adverse conditions (for example, transient drought
stress) is enabled by the behavior of this lineage (Skirycz et al.,
When considering stomatal pattern in the context of the entire
developing leaf, it is striking that patterning mechanisms appear to
be acting at the local level. Timelapse-enabled monitoring of the
descendants of a single MMC reveals that some stomata create
their own ‘niches’ by regulating amplifying division orientations to
ensure that they are surrounded by non-stomatal cells (Robinson et
al., 2011) (Box 2). On the same leaf, descendants of other MMCs
Development 139, 3683-3692 (2012) doi:10.1242/dev.080523
© 2012. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd
Stomatal development: a plant’s perspective on cell polarity,
cell fate transitions and intercellular communication
On Sun Lau2and Dominique C. Bergmann1,2,*
1Howard Hughes Medical Institute and 2Department of Biology, Stanford University,
Stanford, CA 94305-5020, USA.
*Author for correspondence (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PRIMER SERIES PRIMER
Development: the big picture
This Primer is part of a series entitled ‘Development: the big picture’.
This series aims to highlight key developmental systems or processes
that have been the subject of intense study because they have
broad implications for other developmental, cell and molecular
systems, or for disease and therapeutics. Keep an eye out for other
articles in this series over the coming months!
may follow different trajectories. Commonly, correct patterning
involves new meristemoids (derived from SLGC divisions) placed
away from the existing stoma/precursors, and this requires
neighbor cell signaling (Geisler et al., 2000) (discussed later). In
contrast to well-studied animal epithelial systems, there is no
evidence for leaf-wide morphogen gradients that organize stomatal
development, and neither stomata nor the division axes of
precursor cell divisions exhibit planar polarity.
Cell fate transitions
Two groups of bHLH transcription factors govern stomatal
cell fate transitions
The flexible and multistep developmental pathway for stomata
might suggest a need for complex cell fate regulatory programs. It
was therefore somewhat surprising to find that the system could be
explained to a large extent by the behavior of a handful of
transcription factors (Ohashi-Ito and Bergmann, 2006; MacAlister
et al., 2007; Pillitteri et al., 2007; Kanaoka et al., 2008). Three
closely related basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factors
(sharing 90% amino acid similarity in their bHLH domains and
40% similarity overall), SPEECHLESS (SPCH), MUTE and
FAMA, are successively required for the transitions between the
major cell types in the stomatal lineage (Fig. 1) (MacAlister et al.,
2007; Pillitteri et al., 2007; Ohashi-Ito and Bergmann, 2006).
SPCH drives MMC formation and the asymmetric entry division
of these cells, as well as the subsequent asymmetric amplifying and
spacing divisions (see Glossary, Box 1) that expand the lineage
(MacAlister et al., 2007; Robinson et al., 2011; Pillitteri et al.,
2007). MUTE terminates stem cell behavior by promoting the
differentiation of meristemoids into GMCs (MacAlister et al.,
2007; Pillitteri et al., 2007), and FAMA promotes the terminal cell
division and differentiation of GMCs into GCs (Ohashi-Ito and
Bergmann, 2006). Expression patterns and mutant phenotypes
correspond to these roles: among stomatal lineage cells, SPCH is
expressed only in MMCs and meristemoids, and in spch mutants,
no stomatal lineage cells are initiated so the epidermis comprises
only pavement cells. Ectopic expression of the bHLH transcription
factors also provides valuable insights into the nature of their
activities. Constitutive overexpression of MUTE produces an
epidermis completely filled with stomata, including some cells that
transdifferentiated from pavement cells (MacAlister et al., 2007;
Pillitteri et al., 2007). MUTE cannot produce GCs in the absence
of FAMA, but it can bypass the need for SPCH, indicating that
early asymmetric divisions are not actually required for producing
GC fates (MacAlister et al., 2007). Overexpression of FAMA can
also produce ectopic GCs, but they are not properly paired,
indicating a second role of FAMA in regulating cell division
(Ohashi-Ito and Bergmann, 2006). Studies with the MYB
transcription factors FOUR LIPS and MYB88 confirm the need for
tight cell-cycle regulation during the GMC-to-GC transition (Xie
et al., 2010). Overexpression of SPCH, in contrast to the results
with MUTE and FAMA, does not produce extra stomata
(MacAlister et al., 2007). This unexpectedly mild phenotype
revealed two additional levels of regulation: first, the post-
translational phosphoregulation of SPCH protein itself, and second,
that precursor cell fates can be rerouted midway through the
pathway (Lampard et al., 2008). The mechanisms responsible for
these additional levels of control are discussed later.
By characterizing a gain-of-function mutant, the epidermis of
which was composed entirely of stomata, two related bHLH-
leucine zipper (bHLH-LZ) proteins, INDUCER OF CBF
EXPRESSION 1 (ICE1) [also known as SCREAM (SCRM)] and
SCRM2, were identified as the partners of SPCH, MUTE and
FAMA (Kanaoka et al., 2008). Loss of both ICE1 and SCRM2
resembles spch mutants in that the epidermis lacks stomata.
Importantly, ICE1 and SCRM2 are also able to interact physically
with SPCH, MUTE and FAMA. Together, the genetic and
biochemical data suggest that ICE1 and SCRM2 are required for
the function of SPCH, MUTE and FAMA, and that they probably
work as heterodimers in binding and regulating their downstream
targets (Kanaoka et al., 2008). The gain-of-function ICE1 (SCRM-
D) allele contains a single arginine to histidine change outside of
the bHLH domain, and this change reportedly does not affect its
DNA-binding ability (Chinnusamy et al., 2003; Kanaoka et al.,
2008). This version of ICE1, however, does exhibit increased
SPCH-binding activity in a split-GFP assay (see Glossary, Box 1),
suggesting one mechanism for increased activity in the early part
of the stomatal lineage.
Development 139 (20)
Box 1. Glossary
Entry/amplifying/spacing divisions. Three distinct asymmetric
divisions in the stomatal lineage generate one meristemoid and one
SLGC as their daughters. The origin of the meristemoid mother cell
(MMC) differs for each division type. Entry divisions initiate lineages
and the MMC is derived from a protodermal cell. Amplifying
divisions result from successive divisions of meristemoids. Spacing
divisions are asymmetric divisions of an SLGC-derived MMC in
which the newly formed meristemoid is oriented away from pre-
existing stoma or stomatal precursors.
Guard cell (GC). Guard cells are specialized epidermal cells formed
in functional pairs through a single, symmetric division of a GMC.
A pair of guard cells can regulate gas and water exchange by
controlling the aperture of the stomatal pore that they surround.
Guard mother cell (GMC). The immediate precursor cell to the
stomatal guard cells. GMCs divide once, symmetrically, to produce
the pair of guard cells that make up a single stoma.
Hypocotyl. The embryonically derived stem of a seedling.
Meristemoid. An early stomatal precursor cell that has limited self-
renewing properties (regenerating itself and producing an SLGC
through an asymmetric division). A meristemoid eventually
differentiates into a GMC.
Meristemoid mother cell (MMC). The earliest stomatal lineage
cell and precursor to the meristemoid and SLGC. An MMC also has
limited self-renewing properties.
Stomatal lineage ground cell (SLGC). The larger daughter cell
from an asymmetric division of either an MMC or a meristemoid; it
can either differentiate into a pavement cell or become an MMC
and found secondary or satellite lineages.
Split-GFP assay. This technique, also known as bimolecular
fluorescence complementation (BiFC), is employed to study protein-
protein interaction in vivo. Two proteins of interest are tagged
independently with complementary fragments of a fluorescence
protein, e.g. green fluorescent protein (GFP). Individually, the GFP
fragments are not functional. However, if the two test proteins
interact, the attached GFP fragments can reconstitute a functional
fluorescent protein, which can be detected with a fluorescence
Pavement cell. The general epidermal cell type. Pavement cells
possess thick cuticles and are lobed and interdigitated in the plane
of the epidermis to create a water- and gas-impermeable barrier.
Polarity switching. A model for pattern formation in the stomatal
lineage whereby cell division orientation and acquisition of stomatal
precursor cell fate are guided by the divisional history of the cell.
The model requires two components: an identity factor maintained
in a single daughter after division, and a polarity factor for which
asymmetric localization in a cell (a consequence of previous division
orientations) dictates future division planes.
Development 139 (20)
Parallels between stomatal and muscle development
The successive use of related bHLH transcription factors in
stomatal development bears a close resemblance to tissue
specification and differentiation processes in animals, most notably
Drosophila neurogenesis and mammalian myogenesis (Jan and Jan,
1993; Weintraub et al., 1991). During muscle development, the
myogenic regulatory factors (MRFs), four closely related bHLH
transcription factors, establish and promote differentiation of the
myogenic lineage (Bentzinger et al., 2012; Olson and Klein, 1994).
Two of the MRF members, Myf5 and MyoD, are expressed early
in the lineage and commit cells to a myoblast fate. Later, myogenin
and MRF4 (also known as Myf6) are expressed and drive the
terminal differentiation of myotubes and myofibers. These tissue-
specific MRFs heterodimerize with ubiquitously expressed bHLH
partners to mediate their functions (Lassar et al., 1991). The
parallels between this network and stomata are striking, including
the partnership between stomatal lineage-specific SPCH, MUTE,
FAMA and the more broadly expressed ICE1 and SCRM2. In
addition, like the transdifferentiation of non-stomatal lineage cells
induced by misexpression of the stomatal bHLH transcription
factors, ectopic expression of MRFs can drive non-muscle cultures
towards myogenic differentiation (Weintraub et al., 1991). Thus, in
many contexts, bHLH transcription factors represent master
regulators that are capable of reprogramming cell fate, probably
through their placement at the top of an extensive gene regulatory
network (Carvajal and Rigby, 2010; Hachez et al., 2011), and
potentially through connections to chromatin modifications that
maintain stable cell fates (De Falco et al., 2006; Borghi et al.,
2010). The similarity in the use of bHLH transcription factors in
stomatal and muscle development is a case of convergent
evolution, because the last common ancestor of plants and animals
was unicellular (Meyerowitz, 2002) and because the plant bHLH
transcription factors are a distinct subfamily from that containing
the myogenic and neurogenic factors. Given their similar
regulatory logic, however, the stomatal bHLH transcription factors
provide a powerful outgroup with which to test functions and
capabilities of the bHLH transcription factors in general.
Inter- and intracellular signaling
Stomata are distributed across the leaf surface in diverse, species-
specific and often beautiful patterns. Because plant cells do not
move relative to one another during development, these patterns
arise primarily through modulation of cell division numbers, timing
and orientation. Arabidopsis stomata are patterned fairly minimally
by the ‘one-celled spacing’ rule, which posits that stomata must
have at least one pavement cell between them and that this spacing
Meristemoid mother cell (MMC)
Guard mother cell (GMC)Meristemoid Guard cell (GC)
Protodermal cell Stomatal lineage ground cell (SLGC)
MUTE ICE1FAMA ICE1
Fig. 1. Cell fate transitions and divisions during Arabidopsis stomatal development. A protodermal cell (gray) commits to the stomatal
lineage when it becomes a meristemoid mother cell (MMC; pink). MMCs undergo an asymmetric division (Entry) and produce a smaller
meristemoid (red) and a larger stomatal lineage ground cell (SLGC; beige). Meristemoids may undergo additional self-renewing asymmetric divisions
(Amplifying) or differentiate into a guard mother cell (GMC; orange). A GMC divides symmetrically once to form a pair of guard cells (GCs; green).
SLGCs have two options: they can differentiate into pavement cells (white), or they can adopt an MMC fate and undergo an asymmetric division
(Spacing) to create a new secondary meristemoid that is positioned away from the existing stomatal lineage cell. Three related bHLH transcription
factors (bHLHs), SPCH, MUTE and FAMA, form heterodimers with bHLH-LZs ICE1 or SCRM2 (not shown), and are necessary and sufficient for
driving the production of meristemoid, GMC and GC fates, respectively. For simplicity, they are shown at only one position in this figure, but they
are also required during cell fate transitions in the amplifying and spacing branches.
optimizes the efficiency of gas exchange (Geisler et al., 2000). To
enforce this rule, existing stomata or stomatal lineage precursors
must signal their neighbors to either (1) repress their adoption of
the stomatal lineage fate or (2) as in spacing divisions, orient the
newly formed secondary meristemoids away from them. As we
discuss below, research in the past decade has shown that secreted
protein ligands, cell surface receptors and intracellular mitogen-
activated protein kinase (MAPK) signal transduction pathways are
key elements in the cell-cell communication involved in stomatal
patterning (Rowe and Bergmann, 2010; Pillitteri and Torii, 2012).
Membrane-bound receptor-like kinases (RLKs) regulate
Leucine-rich repeat receptor-like kinases (LRR-RLKs) comprise a
major class (>200 members) of plant receptors. Like animal Toll
receptors or receptor tyrosine kinases, these LRR-RLKS are single-
pass transmembrane proteins with an extracellular ligand-binding
domain and an intracellular kinase domain for downstream
signaling (Shiu and Bleecker, 2001). ERECTA, ERECTA-LIKE 1
(ERL1) and ERECTA-LIKE 2 (ERL2), together comprising the
three-membered LRR-RLK ERECTA family (ERf), were first
identified as regulators of plant organ growth, but were later found
to control cell proliferation (Shpak et al., 2004) and the proper
patterning and differentiation of stomata (Shpak et al., 2005).
Detailed genetic analysis of ERf single, double and triple mutants
and their dominant-negative versions (lacking kinase domains),
together with differential expression patterns within the stomatal
lineage, suggests some redundancy between these factors but also
distinct roles for each RLK (Shpak et al., 2005; Lee et al., 2012).
ERECTA, which is expressed strongly in the protodermal cells but
is undetectable thereafter, restricts asymmetric entry division in
MMCs (Fig. 2A). Supporting this notion, expression of a kinase-
deleted, dominant-negative version of this protein in an erecta
mutant background resulted in an increase in asymmetric entry
divisions and the production of small cells (Lee et al., 2012). ERL1
and ERL2, which are highly expressed later in meristemoids,
GMCs and young GCs, inhibit the differentiation of meristemoids
into GMCs. This conclusion stems from the lack of SLGCs in the
erl1 erl2 double mutant, which is an indication of a shortened time
as a meristemoid (Shpak et al., 2005). ERL1 might also orient
asymmetric spacing division, because in mutants expressing a
kinase-deleted version of ERL1, stomata are often paired (Fig. 2B)
(Lee et al., 2012). ERECTA and ERL1 have been shown to homo-
and heterodimerize in vivo. It is not known, however, whether
dimerization is important for function or whether it is dependent
on ligand binding (Fig. 2).
Stomatal RLKs form specific ligand-receptor pairs with
members of the EPIDERMAL PATTERNING FACTOR LIKE
The EPIDERMAL PATTERNING FACTOR LIKE (EPFL) family
is a recently identified group of eleven secreted cysteine-rich
peptides (bioactive forms are ~50 aa), and its characterized
members have been shown to regulate stomatal development and
plant growth (Hara et al., 2007; Hunt and Gray, 2009; Sugano et
al., 2010; Abrash et al., 2011; Uchida et al., 2012). Two founding
members of the family, EPF1 and EPF2, are stomatal lineage-
specific factors and they repress stomatal development in specific
stages corresponding to those during which ERL1 and ERECTA,
respectively, function (Hara et al., 2007; Hunt and Gray, 2009;
Hara et al., 2009). EPF2 is expressed in MMCs and early
meristemoids, and inhibits cells from adopting the MMC fate.
Similar to the dominant-negative phenotype of kinase-deleted
ERECTA, loss-of-function mutants of EPF2 produce excessive
numbers of meristemoid-like cells, whereas EPF2 overexpression
leads to a loss of stomata (Hunt and Gray, 2009; Hara et al., 2009).
EPF1 is expressed in late meristemoids and GMCs. Overexpression
of EPF1 arrests the lineage at the meristemoid stage, and epf1
mutants, like plants expressing dominant-negative ERL1, produce
clustered stomata, a phenotype associated with defects in orienting
spacing divisions (Hara et al., 2007; Lee et al., 2012). Moreover,
overexpression phenotypes of EPF1 and EPF2 require functional
ERf members (Hara et al., 2007; Hara et al., 2009).
Biochemical evidence for ligand-receptor pairing came recently
when EPF1 and EPF2 were shown to interact with both ERECTA
and ERL1 in planta and on biosensor chips (Lee et al., 2012). The
EPF2-ERECTA pair enables existing MMCs or meristemoids to
restrict their neighbors from adopting the stomatal cell fate (Fig. 2A).
Thus, this pair plays a role in regulating the number and density of
stomata. The EPF1-ERL pair appears to enforce the one-celled
spacing rule (Fig. 2B) and also helps control the number of stomata
and pavement cells by restricting meristemoid differentiation, which
indirectly regulates the amplifying divisions and the production of
secondary meristemoids by SLGCs. Establishing the precise
spatiotemporal expression patterns of receptors and ligands in the
developing leaf is a crucial next step. Not only will this information
be needed to understand the stoichiometry of signaling complexes,
but it might help solve the longstanding mystery of whether
meristemoids, which can express both EPF ligands and ERf
receptors, signal in an autocrine fashion to regulate their own
This simple picture of ligand-receptor pairs controlling specific
stomatal stages becomes more complicated when a third ligand,
STOMAGEN (EPFL9), is considered. STOMAGEN is expressed
in the mesophyll tissue below the epidermis and, in contrast to
Development 139 (20)
Box 2. Meristemoids versus stem cells
In plants, the continued generation of above-ground and below-
ground organs and increase in girth are mediated by the activities
of shoot apical meristems, root apical meristems and the vascular
cambium, respectively. By the strictest definitions, these long-lived
and pluripotent cell populations would be considered stem cells. But
what of meristemoids and MMCs, cells with restricted
developmental potential that nonetheless have the ability to
recreate themselves as well as producing a sister of a different
identity? These cells are more properly compared to adult stem cells
of specific lineages, such as muscle satellite cells or subtypes of the
In the literature, two terms used in the stem cell field, niche and
transit-amplifying cell, appear in descriptions of stomatal lineage
cells, but neither is a perfect fit. In the case of the niche, the term
has been used to refer to geometric outcome of orienting cell
divisions such that the stoma becomes surrounded by non-stomatal
sister cells (Robinson et al., 2011). This usage appropriately
describes the nest-like arrangement of cells that isolate a developing
stoma from adjacent stomata. It is, however, potentially confusing
in that, in contrast to a canonical niche, it is the result, not the
source, of stem cell activity. MMCs and meristemoids have also
been described as transient-amplifying cells (Nadeau and Sack,
2002a), but this term, traditionally referring to populations born
from stem cells that proliferate (usually by symmetric divisions)
before differentiating, inadequately captures the division potential
of the stomatal system. MMCs and meristemoids may be transient,
but their daughters produce several cell types each with fractal-like
potential to divide again.
Development 139 (20)
EPF1 and EPF2, STOMAGEN promotes stomatal production
(Sugano et al., 2010; Kondo et al., 2010). Nuclear magnetic
resonance-based structural studies of the EPFLs indicate that they
form a compact knot via their conserved cysteines. The unique
regions of the EPFLs are surface-exposed and domain swaps
between STOMAGEN and EPF1 indicate that functional
specificity does indeed come from this region (Ohki et al., 2011).
Whether STOMAGEN and EPF1/2 exert their antagonistic effects
by competing for the same receptors or whether STOMAGEN
sequesters EPF1 and EPF2 by forming unproductive dimers is not
known (Fig. 3). That STOMAGEN is expressed outside of the
stomatal lineage is intriguing and suggests that STOMAGEN could
help coordinate stomatal production with the photosynthetic tissue
A receptor-like protein (RLP) provides signaling specificity
to stomatal RLKs
An LRR receptor-like protein (RLP), TOO MANY MOUTHS
(TMM), is also required for stomatal patterning. TMM is expressed
within the stomatal lineage and appears to provide specificity to the
more widely expressed and functioning ERf (Yang and Sack, 1995;
Nadeau and Sack, 2002b; Shpak et al., 2005; Lee et al., 2012) (Fig.
2A-C). RLPs lack a C-terminal kinase domain and, thus, are
thought to be incapable of transducing signals on their own (Shiu
and Bleecker, 2001). Like the ERf, TMM inhibits stomatal lineage
proliferation and guides spacing divisions in leaves (Yang and
Sack, 1995; Geisler et al., 2000). Furthermore, overexpression
phenotypes of EPF1 and EPF2 in leaves depend on TMM (Shpak
et al., 2005; Hara et al., 2007; Hara et al., 2009). Because TMM
associates with both ERECTA and ERL1 in vivo, the formation of
heterodimeric receptor complexes between TMM and the ERf
might be required for the initiation of the EPF1/2-induced signal
transduction cascade (Lee et al., 2012).
Although TMM promotes ERf-mediated signaling in leaves, it
paradoxically functions to antagonize it in stems and hypocotyls (see
Glossary, Box 1); tmm mutants produce no stomata in these organs
(Yang and Sack, 1995; Bhave et al., 2009). Recent data reconcile
these differences, indicating that TMM acts as a stomatal-lineage
specificity factor for ERf signaling, promoting reception of EPF1/2
ligands and preventing the inappropriate activation of the ERf by
internal EPFLs (Abrash and Bergmann, 2010; Abrash et al., 2011).
EPFL4-6 [also known as the CHALLAH family (CHALf) ligands]
form a distinct subgroup of EPFLs. CHALf members are highly
expressed in internal tissues, especially in those of the hypocotyls
and stems, and appear to function as growth (but not normally as
stomatal) regulators through the ERf (Abrash et al., 2011; Uchida et
al., 2012). Based on these results and on a ‘re-wiring’ experiment in
which ligands and receptors were expressed in different spatial
domains, it was shown that TMM functions as a stomatal lineage-
specific insulator (Fig. 2C) (Abrash et al., 2011). Essentially, TMM
promotes signaling of EPF1/2 ligands through ERf while suppressing
the inadvertent activation of the stomatal lineage pool of ERf by
CHALf ligands. This mechanism allows the use of the same set of
receptors simultaneously for different developmental processes,
while still maintaining signaling specificity.
A similar role, in which a co-receptor modulates differential
responses to related ligands, is seen in the case of animal Cripto-1.
Cripto-1, which is involved in embryogenesis and is expressed in
many cancers, enhances signaling of some TGF superfamily
ligands, such as Nodal, but represses others, such as activin
(reviewed by Nagaoka et al., 2012). Because Cripto-1 signaling
studies were performed in cultured cells, it will be interesting to
Fig. 2. Ligand-receptor interactions regulate stomatal production and patterning. (A)In leaves, the secreted peptide EPF2 (pink) is produced
by MMCs and early meristemoids. EPF2 is detected by the receptor-like kinase ERECTA (blue), present in protodermal cells (gray). In partnership with
the receptor-like protein TMM (green), the EPF2-ERECTA pair is hypothesized to activate an intracellular signaling cascade that represses production
of meristemoids (red). (B)EPF1 (orange, top), which is secreted by late meristemoids, GMCs or GCs, interacts with ERL1 (purple). The EPF1-ERL1
pair, together with TMM, induces signaling that affects the division plane such that the secondary meristemoid (red) forms away from pre-existing
stoma or stomatal precursors. Illustrated here is a GMC (orange, bottom), and the results of correct and incorrect spacing of a newly formed
secondary meristemoid. The EPF1-ERL1 pair also represses meristemoid differentiation (not shown). (C)In stems, ERf receptors (blue/purple) are
subject to inadvertent activation by the EPF-related CHALf peptides (brown), which are normally produced in inner tissues for growth regulation.
Stomatal lineage expression of TMM functions as a signaling insulator, repressing CHALf-mediated and promoting EPF1/2-mediated signaling. In A
and B, ERECTA and ERL1 are shown as homodimers, but they may also form heterodimers with other members of the ERf.
examine whether Cripto-1 provides similar discrimination when in
its native developmental contexts.
Peptide ligand-RLK signaling is common during plant
development. Receptors and ligands, however, exist in large
families, and the extensive processing of many ligands (for
example, the CLE family has >40 members and the active forms
are nearly identical dodecamers) (Katsir et al., 2011) has made it
difficult to establish specific reagents and circumvent genetic
redundancy. The relatively large size and sequence diversity of
bioactive EPFLs (Rychel et al., 2010), new biochemical techniques
to assay ligand and receptor interactions (Lee et al., 2012), and
mounting evidence that EPFL/ERf signaling guides decisions
outside of stomatal development (Abrash et al., 2011; Uchida et al.,
2012) suggest that the ERf/EPFL system will be an effective and
broad platform for mechanistic exploration of plant cell-cell
Integrating intrinsic and environmental signals through
the MAPK pathway
Intracellular transduction of the signaling initiated by the EPFL-
ERf-TMM module is likely to be through a MAPK pathway
(Bergmann et al., 2004; Wang et al., 2007; Lampard et al., 2009).
Plant MAPK pathways, like their yeast and animal counterparts,
are used to mediate developmental, stress and defense responses,
and involve the sequential phosphorylation and activation of a three
kinase module: the MAPK kinase kinases (MAPKKKs or
MEKKs), the MAPK kinases (MKKs or MEKs) and the MAPKs
(Rodriguez et al., 2010). In plants, the repertoire of kinases at each
of these levels is greatly expanded relative to animals (e.g. there
are >80 MAPKKKs). This expanded family offers opportunities to
use this cascade in many processes, but creates significant
problems with regards to cross-talk and achieving specificity. At
least seven kinases can modulate stomatal development: the
MAPKKK YODA (YDA), MKK4, MKK5, MKK7, MKK9,
MPK3 and MPK6 (Fig. 3) (Bergmann et al., 2004; Wang et al.,
2007; Lampard et al., 2009). Although, thus far, only genetic
evidence exists to place the MAPK cascade downstream of ERf
signaling, a biochemical connection was established between
MAPKs and the fate-promoting bHLH transcription factors when
MPK3 and MPK6 were shown to directly phosphorylate and
repress SPCH (Lampard et al., 2008).
Besides interpreting intralineage signals for patterning, the
stomatal lineage must also respond to systemic signals, such as
hormones, and environmental signals, such as light and carbon
dioxide, to optimize the number of stomata to the state of the plant
and the environment. Recent studies on brassinosteroid (BR) and
light highlight the MAPK cascade as an integration point for
communicating these signals to stomatal production. BR is a plant
steroid hormone that regulates diverse growth and developmental
processes (reviewed by Kim and Wang, 2010). BR can also
regulate stomatal production through its signaling intermediate, the
glycogen synthase kinase 3 (GSK3)-like kinase, BR
INSENSITIVE 2 (BIN2; Fig. 3), but not, interestingly, through its
major transcriptional effectors (Kim et al., 2012). Inactivation of
BIN2 suppresses stomatal production, and quadruple mutants of its
direct upstream inhibitors (the BSU1 family of phosphatases) have
an epidermis that is composed mostly of stomata, similar to yda
mutants. Importantly, BIN2 was found to interact with,
Development 139 (20)
Fig. 3. A mitogen-activated protein kinase
(MAPK) pathway transduces and integrates
intrinsic and environmental signals during
stomatal production. A signal transaction cascade
involving the MAPKKK YDA, MKK4/5 and MPK3/6 is
employed to repress stomatal production. The EPFL-
ERf-TMM module (including the antagonistic
STOMAGEN) functioning within the stomatal lineage
lies genetically upstream of YDA, activating it
through an as yet unknown mechanism. The
activated stomatal MAPK module can regulate
stomatal development at multiple stages. Shown
here is its repression of meristemoid production by
MPK3/6 phosphorylation and downregulation of
SPCH that is initiated upstream by the EPF2-ERECTA
pair. The downstream targets of the MAPK pathway
activated by the EPF1-ERL1 pair are not known. An
intermediate signaling component in the
brassinosteroid (BR) pathway, the GSK3-like kinase
BIN2, interfaces with the stomatal development
pathway at two levels: by phosphorylating and
inhibiting YDA (thus increasing stomata) and by
phosphorylating and repressing SPCH (thus
decreasing stomata). Light also regulates the number
of stomata through the ubiquitin E3 ligase COP1, a
central repressor in light signal transduction. Genetic
evidence has placed YDA downstream of COP1 but
the nature of their molecular link is not known.
Arrows indicate positive interactions, T-bars negative
interactions. Solid lines indicate confirmed
biochemical interactions and dashed lines are
indirect or genetic interactions. BAK1, BRI1-
ASSOCIATED RECEPTOR KINASE 1; BRI1, BR
INSENSITIVE 1; BSU1f, family of BRI1-SUPPRESSOR 1.
Development 139 (20)
phosphorylate and inhibit YDA. Thus, BR negatively regulates
stomatal development through the inactivation of BIN2, leading to
de-repression of YDA (Kim et al., 2012). The GSK3 and
MAPKKK phosphoregulation also represents a novel connection
between the two widely used and conserved signaling cascades.
BIN2 has also been found to phosphorylate and inactivate SPCH
directly, a result that, by contrast, is consistent with BR promoting
stomatal development (Gudesblat et al., 2012). This discrepancy
between the stomatal promoting and repressing roles of BR could
represent a fine-tuning mechanism for targeting SPCH during its
successive rounds of activity (in entry versus amplifying or spacing
divisions) and must be addressed in future studies.
YDA is also a point of integration between light signaling and
stomata (Kang et al., 2009). Light is one of the environmental
signals that dramatically affects the number and density of stomata
(Casson and Hetherington, 2010). Light signals are perceived by
multiple photoreceptors that converge to repress the RING E3
ubiquitin ligase CONSTITUTIVE PHOTOMORPHOGENIC 1
(COP1) (reviewed by Lau and Deng, 2012; Jiao et al., 2007). Loss-
of-function mutants of COP1, as well as mutants of other COP
genes, such as COP10, produce stomatal clusters (Kang et al.,
2009; Wei et al., 1994; Delgado et al., 2012). The clustering
phenotype in the cop1 mutants can be suppressed by the expression
of a constitutively active form of YDA, suggesting that COP1
functions upstream of YDA (Kang et al., 2009) (Fig. 3). Rigorous
biochemical tests of the hypothesis that COP1 suppresses stomatal
production through activating YDA, however, have not yet been
Plants have remarkable sensitivity to environmental cues, and
the magnitude of this response has been used to great advantage to
dissect a number of universal regulatory mechanisms. For example,
COP1 and the COP9 signalosome (CSN), both crucial for regulated
protein turnover in both plants and animals, were first identified
because they mediate plant environmental responses (Yi and Deng,
2005; Wei et al., 2008). Over both evolutionary and experimentally
tractable timescales, stomatal production and pattern shows
significant responses to the environment (Hetherington and
Woodward, 2003). Because this developmental pathway is
composed of simple, discrete, quantifiable steps, there is great
potential to assay in situ the multifactorial inputs into development
in a real, and changing, world.
Positive-acting transcription factors and negative-acting signaling
systems regulate the cell fate and renewal decisions in the stomatal
lineage. After fate decisions are made, however, our understanding
of the pathway controlling the execution of asymmetric and
oriented cell divisions becomes murky. Moreover, these ‘decision-
making’ elements cannot explain how asymmetric MMC divisions
occur in a field of equivalent cells without reference to any
apparent landmarks, nor do they explain the switching of cell
polarity axes evident in self-renewing asymmetric divisions
(Robinson et al., 2011) (Fig. 4). Plant genomes are devoid of
recognizable homologs of animal or fungal cell polarity genes.
This, combined with the mechanical constraints imposed by cell
walls, dictates that plants must utilize alternative strategies to create
Asymmetric cell division regulators
The predictability of divisions and the accessibility of the epidermis
have allowed a number of novel and plant-specific polarity proteins
to be identified in the stomatal lineage, through genetic screens (for
in amplifying division
Cortical BASL might repel
future division plane
for divisional asymmetry
Meristemoid mother cell (MMC)
BASL (polarized protein)
Guard mother cell (GMC)
Guard cell (GC)
Prior BASL localizationStomatal lineage ground cell (SLGC)
Future division plane
Fig. 4. Asymmetric cell division and division polarity of stomata in Arabidopsis. The asymmetric divisions of MMCs with and without
influences from stomatal lineage neighbors are referred to as having intrinsic and oriented polarity, respectively. Polarity is seen in cell sizes and
division orientations, but also in the localization of the cortical proteins BASL (blue) and POLAR (not shown, but following the same trajectory as
BASL). Prior to MMC asymmetric division, BASL localizes at the cortex of the MMC in crescents on the side at which the future SLGC will form.
Models predict that such localization could generate cell polarity if the polarized protein acts to repel the nucleus and subsequent division plane.
During amplifying divisions (top pathway), self-renewing meristemoids reorient cortical crescents away from the most recently formed walls, leading
to a stomatal progenitor surrounded by lineally related non-stomatal sisters (see also Fig. 1, top pathway). White dotted lines indicate the future
division plane and blue dotted lines indicate the previous position of BASL. In SLGCs adopting MMC fates (lower pathway), BASL must redistribute
within the same cell into a crescent abutting the pre-existing meristemoid or GMC. For simplicity, the nuclear localization of BASL is not indicated.
Although divisions of MMCs are precisely oriented relative to immediate neighbors, the divisions of MMCs and GMCs do not appear to be oriented
relative to any landmarks or axes of the leaf.
example, BASL) (Dong et al., 2009) and through transcriptional
profiling approaches (for example, POLAR) (Pillitteri et al., 2011).
In BASL null mutants, early stomatal lineage divisions often
generate daughter cells similar in size, marker expression and
identity (Dong et al., 2009). These incorrect early divisions lead to
a hyperproliferation of self-renewing cells, a phenotype akin to the
tumors resulting from loss of Drosophila neuroblast asymmetry
regulators (Neumüller and Knoblich, 2009). BASL RNA and
protein are expressed in dividing MMCs, meristemoids and
SLGCs, with the protein exhibiting striking dynamic relocalization
during repeated asymmetric divisions (Dong et al., 2009). Prior to
a typical asymmetric division, BASL is initially nuclear, but as the
cell ages and elongates, BASL begins to accumulate in a cortical
crescent (Fig. 4). The position of this crescent is such that it is
always inherited by the larger daughter. After division, both
daughters possess a nuclear pool of BASL, so this is not a
segregated factor per se, but only the larger daughter possesses
BASL at the cortex. Structure-function studies of BASL indicate
that the cortical pool BASL is necessary and sufficient for rescuing
activity (Dong et al., 2009), but whether BASL activity is required
before division (to define division axes) or after division to
reinforce daughter cell differences, or both, is not yet known (Box
3). When expressed in non-stomatal lineage cells, BASL still
localizes to the cortex in a polarized fashion, indicating that the
ability to localize and maintain polarized domains of the cortex is
not a unique property of an unusual cell type, but rather a general
(but previously unrecognized) feature of most plant cells. POLAR
is localized exclusively at the cortex of stomatal lineage cells and
is also inherited preferentially by the larger daughter cell. No
mutant phenotype has yet been described for POLAR, but this
protein does appear to depend on BASL for its localization
(Pillitteri et al., 2011). POLAR mislocalization in basl mutants
could be due to a specific interaction with BASL, or because of cell
identity defects; here, the incomplete penetrance of the basl
phenotype might be revealing, as it has been reported that in the
few correctly asymmetric cell divisions, POLAR is correctly
localized (Pillitteri et al., 2011).
Polarity switching and polarity factors
The phenomenon of polarity switching (see Glossary, Box 1)
during rounds of asymmetric amplifying divisions, described
developmentally by Sack and colleagues (Geisler et al., 2000;
Bergmann and Sack, 2007) and formalized in models by Robinson
et al. (Robinson et al., 2011) (Fig. 4), relies on a polarizing factor
that can read division history (in other words, it must remember the
orientations of previous divisions) and influence future divisions.
This ‘polarizer’, over time, must be transient and able to relocate.
Time-lapse imaging of BASL and/or POLAR is consistent with
these proteins behaving as such factors. POLAR localization at the
cell cortex is initially fairly uniform, but then condenses into a
discrete crescent just before the mother cell undergoes an
asymmetric cell division. When a cell switches polarity, the
existing POLAR-GFP crescent delocalizes before reappearing as a
crescent on the opposite cell side (Pillitteri et al., 2011). For BASL-
GFP, nuclear sequestration appears to precede relocalization of the
crescent to the opposite cell side (Dong et al., 2009). In both cases,
continued asymmetric division potential correlates with the
presence of the protein in a given cell, and differentiation into a
pavement cell or stoma follows the disappearance of these
The polarized localization and loss-of-function phenotype of
BASL make its functions potentially comparable to those of
intrinsic polarity proteins or fate determinants in animal systems,
both of which display polarized localization and are required for
asymmetric fate specification in daughters. BASL bears a greater
resemblance to polarity generators, such as the partition-
defective/atypical protein kinase C (PAR/aPKC) complex, in that
divisions lose physical as well as cell fate asymmetry in its absence
(Suzuki and Ohno, 2006). POLAR function remains obscure in
these divisions, but its coiled-coil domains suggest that it could act
as a scaffold. What is clearly needed is a connection between these
novel proteins of unknown function and biochemical or cellular
processes. An interesting preliminary link comes from the
observation of BASL and the RHO OF PLANTS (ROP) family
GTPases. ROPs can organize the actin cytoskeleton and are major
regulators of polarized outgrowths in the lobed pavement cells
neighboring stomata (Fu et al., 2002). Overexpression of BASL can
induce ectopic cellular outgrowths, but these outgrowths are
suppressed in plants with compromised ROP signaling, suggesting
that BASL could generate polarized domains via regulation of ROP
localization or activity (Dong et al., 2009). ROP activity also
guides localization of other polarized proteins (Nagawa et al.,
2012). In plants expressing constitutively active or dominant-
negative forms of ROP2, however, BASL crescents form and are
correctly positioned (Dong et al., 2009); thus, as yet, there is no
evidence for the reciprocal interplays that characterize other ROP-
mediated polarization events.
Although there is still far to go, BASL and POLAR provide
footholds from which to approach the generation of plant cell
polarity. Previous studies of the PIN family of integral membrane
Development 139 (20)
Box 3. Do asymmetric divisions and segregated fate
determinants matter for plant development?
In plants, physically asymmetric cell divisions (ACDs) commonly
correlate with the generation of new tissue layers and new cell
types. Whether plants actually require the ACDs to produce cells of
given identities and whether ACDs segregate fate determinants is
still unresolved. Mutant plants in which nearly every cell division
plane is misoriented still develop roots, shoots and (sterile) flowers,
complete with appropriate cell types, arguing against a strict need
for segregated fate determinants (Traas et al., 1995). Differential
expression of transcription factors in the ACD daughters can be
observed, but the best resolved temporal observations are
consistent with differences in post-divisional protein stability that
would account for this pattern (Nakajima et al., 2001; Robinson et
al., 2011). In the stomatal lineage, expression of FAMA or MUTE
can create GCs without asymmetric divisions (Ohashi-Ito and
Bergmann, 2006; Pillitteri et al., 2007), and pavement cells (the
other product of the lineage) can be made through alternative
With evidence against segregated determinants guiding plant cell
fate, it is provocative that stomatal lineage cells nonetheless have
mechanisms for polarizing and segregating cortical factors such as
BASL and POLAR. Is there something special about this lineage? We
hypothesize (also considering that BASL and POLAR homologs are
undetectable outside of a subset of flowering plants), that the
stomatal lineage has a unique requirement to create intrinsically
asymmetric divisions. Bounded by rigid cell walls, most plant cells
have an unchanging spatial relationship to their neighbors and
could rely upon signaling (lateral inhibition or proximity to a source)
to dictate fate and pattern. Early MMC division orientations,
however, bear no obvious alignment to leaf axes or other
landmarks. To reliably create cells of different behaviors in this
situation requires the generation of intrinsically asymmetric divisions
and, thus, additional machinery to do so.
Development 139 (20)
auxin transporters (polarly localized in differentiated cells) led to
numerous insights into the mechanisms plant cells use to generate
subcellular differences (reviewed by Grunewald and Friml, 2010).
As non-transmembrane proteins polarized during asymmetric cell
divisions, BASL, POLAR and other stomatal lineage proteins
provide a complementary set of probes for additional aspects of
fundamental polarity-generating processes in plants.
Conclusions and perspectives
Stomatal development provides a framework for studying the
fundamental processes of plants at different scales, from molecules,
cells and tissues, up to whole plants and ecosystems. In this Primer,
we have focused on exemplary modules for cell fate, polarity and
pattern derived from studies of the reference plant Arabidopsis.
Plants, as an outgroup to animals, have created many different
strategies for life, but it is interesting to see some examples of
striking conservation in the molecular and developmental solutions
both groups have used for many developmental decisions. Looking
forward, tools developed for the Arabidopsis stomatal lineage can
be leveraged to obtain detailed information about stem cell-like
developmental trajectories, especially as modulated by the
environment. It is already possible to isolate pure populations of
specialized plant cell types to obtain transcriptomic, proteomic and
epigenomic information. In the future, it might be possible to
generate models of stem cell behavior based on comprehensive
profiles of individual stomatal lineage cells as they transit through
their self-renewing divisions in an intact, environmentally
As useful as stomata can be as a mirror for animal development,
it is important not to ignore their essential role in photosynthesis
and global climate cycles, a role that enabled a world in which
humans can even exist to ponder developmental questions. Stomata
are essential structures and have been found in plant fossils dating
from 400 million years ago. Evidence that the genetic networks for
cell fate and patterns described in Arabidopsis are conserved comes
from comparative genomic studies (Peterson et al., 2010; Vatén and
Bergmann, 2012) and functional studies in extant species of the
basal plant lineages (MacAlister and Bergmann, 2011), as well as
in plants with highly modified leaf and stomatal structures (Liu et
al., 2009). An exciting future direction is to identify key genes that
correlate with stomatal innovations across plant groups and to
create plants with a wide range of stomatal alterations that would
allow eco-physiologists to test models about stomata at the whole
plant or whole planet level.
We thank members of our laboratory and the vibrant and interdisciplinary
plant stomatal research community for data and discussions. We apologize to
colleagues whose work could not be included owing to space constraints.
Work on stomatal development in the authors’ laboratory was supported by
the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. O.S.L.
was supported by the Croucher Foundation and D.C.B. is a Gordon and Betty
Moore Foundation Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Deposited in PMC for release after 12 months.
Competing interests statement
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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