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Looking Through the Microscope

Advances in technology allow scientists to gain increasingly greater glimpses into how plants function, generating knowledge that can be turned into tools for farmers and ranchers.

By Courtney Leeper, Writer

Posted May 15, 2019

Take a single blade of grass and zoom in deep beyond the green surface. Deeper, into the inner-workings of cells. While there is much hustle and bustle taking place within a plant, much of it cannot be seen by the eye alone.

A Journey of Discovery

Microscopes take scientists on a journey within so that they can unveil the mystery of what is really happening within a plant. They then use that knowledge to develop biology-based tools for farmers and ranchers, including improved crop varieties with fewer nutrient demands and greater resilience against drought and diseases.

What Do Scientists See?

Microscopes allow scientists to observe a cell’s building blocks, such as proteins, fatty acids and carbohydrates, as well as the chemical reactions that take place within and between cells. Sometimes they look at the surface of a group of cells, and other times they need to peer deeper into an individual one. They can see how a cell develops under different conditions, which helps them explore what that means for the plant in the field.

The Trouble With Live Cells

In the not-so-distant past, cellular imaging was limited to pre-prepared slides called “bio-dead” slides. However, today’s high-tech microscopes (for example, spinning disk confocal microscopes), combined with innovative ways to mark the cell and its individual parts, enable researchers to study live cells more efficiently. That doesn’t mean working with live cells is easy. Live cells are sensitive to temperature, pH levels and CO₂ levels, and they can easily be damaged by the very light needed for their observation. However, the struggle reaps a rich reward when a scientist is able to see how a cell functions in real-time, right before their eyes.

Microscope illustration

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