Seeing Plants in Three Dimensions

Scientists are taking a new look at the inner workings of plants by imaging and modeling them in three dimensions.

“We’ve realized tremendous advances in technology for 3-D imaging of leaves,” said Tom Buckley, assistant professor of plant sciences at UC Davis.

Plant scientists are getting new insight by imaging and modeling leaves in three dimensions. (Image: University of Sydney)

Recent developments are summarized in an article in Trends in Plant Sciences, which sprang from a 2017 workshop at the University of Sydney organized by Buckley and Professor Margaret Barbour, University of Sydney.

Buckley uses mathematical and computer modeling to study how plants respond to their environment, especially how water moves through leaves. That sounds small-scale, but how water moves through leaves controls how water moves through forests and that controls how water moves between the ground and the atmosphere.

“It impacts our models of water and carbon exchange in the landscape,” Buckley said.

Plants control water flow by opening or closing tiny holes in leaves called stomata. When plants are water-stressed, the stomata close to conserve water. But this also stops carbon dioxide from entering the leaf, limiting photosynthesis and plant growth. Many of us learnt about stomata in high school biology, but there’s still no complete model for how they respond to environmental changes, Buckley said.

Buckley’s research has shown that there are problems with how scientists quantify water movement. Existing models account for factors like osmosis and gravity, but do not take into account the movement of water vapor due to changes in temperature, he said. Three-dimensional modeling and imaging is enabling Buckley and his international colleagues to quantify these differences, and this feeds back to other calculations – from leaves up to entire forests.

More information

Embracing 3D Complexity in Leaf Carbon–Water Exchange (Trends in Plant Sciences)

3D imaging opens door to better understanding of fascinating leaf complexity (University of Sydney news release)

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