Prof. Alexis MaizelCell and Developmental biology

How does the genetic information encoded in the DNA reliably lead to a specific organismal shape? The laboratory is interested in understanding morphogenesis in plants, which unlike animals, form organs throughout their whole life. We study the formation of lateral roots that determine the plant's capacity to forage its environment for nutrients and stabilize its anchoring. To understand how these new roots are formed, we combine molecular genetics with cell biology, imaging and quantitative analysis.

Alexis Maizel

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We primarily use Arabidopsis thaliana, a model plant which forms lateral roots from founder cells located deep in the primary root. The process starts with the de novo formation of stem cells, the asymmetric expansion of two abutting founder cells in the pericycle.

These founder cells share a common interface and expand along it, prefiguring the future dome-shaped lateral root primordium that grows out of the parental root. Accompanying the asymmetric growth, both nuclei migrate toward the common cell wall and the cells divide asymmetrically. Failure to execute these steps leads to an aberrantly shaped lateral root or to complete arrest of lateral root growth.

Lateral root formation is a self-organizing process during which the founder cells invariably undergo first an asymmetric anticlinal division.  We showed that radial expansion of the founder cells and spatial accommodation by the overlying endodermis are essential for the formation of a lateral root and the first asymmetric cell divisions to occur. We  have made key discoveries about the role of the cell wall and the cytoskeleton in this process. We have also co-developed innovative methods to analyse the shape of cells

Lateral root formation in Arabidopsis
Stages of lateral root formation

The laboratory is combining precise manipulation of cell properties at cell and tissue scale with live imaging and quantitative analysis to understand the mechanisms responsible for the proper execution of the lateral root initiation program. We have developed several techniques to study and analyze the morphogenesis of lateral roots in real time.



Our current and future research concentrate on understanding how cell polarity, growth and division articulate to specify distinct identities in the developing lateral root. 

Lateral root


Plants harvest energy from sunlight in their leaves to produce sugar. To support their growth they must also forage for water and mineral nutrients with their roots. Designing better roots represents an under-explored way to increase yield in the context of changing environmental and climate conditions, reduce fertilizer use and pollution, promote soil health and, ultimately, help people.

How to optimize root systems? This is not an easy question. Building more roots in an uncontrolled manner comes with construction as well as maintenance costs. Optimizing root systems therefore requires a basic understanding of the cellular mechanisms that control how and where new roots are formed

Young plant on soil with roots

By unraveling the basic concepts and mechanisms that underpin the formation of roots, our work will pave the way for the rational design of better root systems in crops.


The Maizel lab started as an independent group in the CellNetworks Cluster of Excellence. The laboratory is part of the collaborative research centre SFB1101 on specificity on plant processes, the FOR2581 on plant Morphodynamics and the HBIGS graduate school. Our work is supported by funds from a variety of public sources.

Logos of funders of maizel lab

In discussion

In the context of the Bertalanffy live podcast, Michael Stitz and Alexis Maizel discuss their research with roots, their career, the challenges of managing work and family and how small changes can have large impact. In german.