Arabidopsis thaliana: The Most Famous Plant You've Never Heard Of

Arabidopsis plant
Arabidopsis Plant Used for Genetic Research. dra_schwartz/E+/Getty Images

You've heard of the corn plant, the wheat plant, and the soybean plant, and you may even have eaten portions of all of these plants. However, you may never have heard of Arabidopsis thaliana, and I'm willing to bet money that you've never eaten it, either. However, Arabidopsis is one of the most well-known and thoroughly researched plants in the world. Why is it so famous, what does the plant look like, and what is it used for?


"Model System"

Arabidopsis thaliana is considered as an ideal plant for use in genetic experimentation, according to plant geneticists. It is desirable for research not only because of its genetics, but because the plant is so easy to grow, and it produces large amounts of seeds. In biology, organisms considered ideal for experimentation are called "model systems".

Another "model system" used in biology is the fruit fly. One thing that you may know about fruit flies is that they are small and they reproduce really fast (especially on your overripe bananas, right?). These are two traits that make them desirable for genetic research. Biologists look for potential model systems that can be studied over many generations, and if the generations are short, this makes that task much easier.

The Arabidopsis model system fits those same criteria perfectly, as the plant size is normally under 20 centimeters tall, and goes from seed germination to seed maturation in less than six weeks!

It also produces many seeds (at least 20 to 30) in each fruit, and best of all, according to plant genetic researchers, it has a small genome. In fact, Arabidopsis was the first fully mapped plant genome.

History Of Arabidopsis Discovery And Use

Arabidopsis thaliana was discovered in Germany by Johannes Thal (notice he is immortalized in the species name, thaliana) in the 16th century.

However, the "father" of Arabidopsis is considered to be Friedrich Laibach. He published the chromosome number in 1907 and collected mutant strains of the plant that he and his student, Erna Reinholz, generated using x-ray mutagenesis. It was not until the 1960's, however, that Arabidopsis was introduced to the scientific community as a potential model system, and it was not used widely as a plant genetics tool until the 1980s.

Facts About Arabidopsis

Commonly called mouse-ear cress or thale cress (although scientists mainly just call it Arabidopsis), the plant was either introduced or occurred naturally throughout temperate regions of North America, Europe, East Africa, Australia, and Asia. The plant does not grow as well in hot climates. It is in the Brassicaceae family, so it is related to plants such as mustard, beets, and canola. It is an annual (remember, its life cycle is only about six days long) and it is a dicotyledon.

Arabidopsis can grow on poorly fertilized soils, and especially likes well-drained (sandy, or gravelly) soils. It can be susceptible to several insect pests, like the scarid fly or the fungus gnat, to the viral disease Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus (INSV), and to some fungal infections.

Anatomy Of Arabidopsis

Flowers. The flowers are typically white, with four petals, one pistil, and six stamens. They are approximately three millimeters in diameter, arranged in a corymb.

Fruits And Seeds. The fruit is shaped as a silique (long and skinny, almost like a string bean), which is typical of the Brassicaceae family. Its length is 8 - 18 mm. Each fruit contains between 20 and 30 seeds. The seed emits a mucilage when wet.

Leaves. The leaves are simple but are not separated into leaflets. They can be lobed or unlobed and may have teeth at the edge of their leaf blades. The leaf blade length can be between 4 - 45 mm and is normally oblong.

Recent Research Involving Arabidopsis

Arabidopsis models have been used to clarify all sorts of plant genetics mysteries, from the regulation of genes behind plant disease resistance to the genetic basis of polysaccharide biosynthesis and secretion.

It has also been used to understand flower development, genetic engineering techniques, and protein research. Admittedly, the plant itself as a whole is not economically important. However, its importance to biology, in general, is nearly unsurpassed.