The endosperm is a product of fertilization that evolved to support and nourish its genetic twin sibling embryo. Cereal endosperm accumulates starch and protein stores, which later support the germinating seedling. These nutritional stores prompted the domestication of cereals and are the focus of ongoing efforts for crop improvement and biotechnological innovations. Endosperm development entails several novel modifications to basic cellular and developmental processes. Cereals display nuclear endosperm development, which begins with a period of free nuclear division to generate a coenocyte. Cytoskeletal arrays distribute nuclei around the periphery of the cytoplasm and direct the subsequent deposition of cell wall material during cellularization. Positional cues and signaling systems function dynamically in the specification of the four major cell types: transfer cells, embryo-surrounding cells, starchy endosperm (SE), and aleurone. Genome balance, epigenetic gene regulation, and parent-of-origin effects are essential for directing these processes. Transfer cells transport solutes, including sugars and amino acids, from the maternal plant tissues into the developing grain where they are partitioned between embryo and SE cells. Cells of the embryo-surrounding region appear to coordinate development of the embryo and endosperm. As the seed matures, SE cells assimilate starch and protein stores, undergo DNA endoreduplication, and finally undergo programmed cell death. In contrast, aleurone cells follow a maturation program similar to the embryo, allowing them to survive desiccation. At germination, the aleurone cells secrete amylases and proteases that hydrolyze the storage products of the SE to nourish the germinating seedling. WIREs Dev Biol 2012, 1:579–593. doi: 10.1002/wdev.31
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