The plant cell wall gives plant cells shape, support, and protection. As a cell matures, its cell wall specializes according to the cell type. For example, the parenchyma cells of leaves possess only a thin, primary cell wall.
Collenchyma and sclerenchyma cells, on the other hand, mainly occur in the outer layers of a plant's stems and leaves. These cells provide the plant with strength and support by either partially thickening their primary cell wall (i.e., collenchyma), or depositing a secondary cell wall (i.e., sclerenchyma). Altogether, the varying cell wall compositions determine the function of specific cells and tissues.
Some plants, such as trees and grasses, deposit a secondary cell wall around mature cells. Secondary cell walls typically contain three distinct layers: the secondary wall layer 1 (S1) to the outside, the secondary wall layer 2 (S2) in the middle, and the innermost secondary wall layer 3 (S3). In each layer, the cellulose microfibrils are organized in different orientations. The S2 layer may make up to 75% of the cell wall.
Regardless of composition, all plant cell walls have small holes, or pits, that allow for the transport of water, nutrients, and other molecules. In a pit, the middle lamella and primary cell wall merely form a thin membrane that separates adjacent cells. Plasmodesmata span the resulting channel and connect the cytoplasm of neighboring cells. The secondary cell wall may be deposited around the pit but not within.
When plants absorb water and nutrients, plant cells store it in the vacuole. As the vacuole expands, it pushes the plasma membrane against the cell wall. This so-called turgor pressure supports the upright and rigid structure of plants. The cell wall, however, prevents the cells from rupturing under this pressure.
In addition to providing structure and support, plant cell walls may also provide plants with nutrient storage. Seeds, for example, may store sugars in the cell walls of cotyledon and endosperm tissues for use during early plant growth. The cell wall also acts as the principal barrier and defense against pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Plant cell walls are dynamic structures rather than rigid and unchanging barriers.
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