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The biochemical mechanisms underlying cell wall expansion in plants have long been a matter of conjecture. Previous work in our laboratory identified two proteins (named "expansins") that catalyze the acid-induced extension of isolated cucumber cell walls. Here we examine the mechanism of expansin action with three approaches. First, we report that expansins did not alter the molecular mass distribution or the viscosity of solutions of matrix polysaccharides. We conclude that expansins do not hydrolyze the major pectins or hemicelluloses of the cucumber wall. Second, we investigated the effects of expansins on stress relaxation of isolated walls. These studies show that expansins account for the pH-sensitive and heat-labile components of wall stress relaxation. In addition, these experiments show that expansins do not cause a progressive weakening of the walls, as might be expected from the action of a hydrolase. Third, we studied the binding of expansins to the cell wall and its components. The binding characteristics are consistent with this being the site of expansin action. We found that expansins bind weakly to crystalline cellulose but that this binding is greatly increased upon coating the cellulose with various hemicelluloses. Xyloglucan, either solubilized or as a coating on cellulose microfibrils, was not very effective as a binding substrate. Expansins were present in growing cell walls in low quantities (approximately 1 part in 5000 on a dry weight basis), suggesting that they function catalytically. We conclude that expansins bind at the interface between cellulose microfibrils and matrix polysaccharides in the wall and induce extension by reversibly disrupting noncovalent bonds within this polymeric network. Our results suggest that a minor structural component of the matrix, other than pectin and xyloglucan, plays an important role in expansin binding to the wall and, presumably, in expansin action.
PMID: 11536663 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]