Miroscopes and motivational musings


Good to be back!

Having recently returned from my third field season at the Las Cruces Biological Station, I was looking forward to returning back to life as usual in Miami, but also to processing over a hundred leaf samples I brought back from Costa Rica. For most of my dissertation, anytime I've thought about morphology, I've focused on large-scale features like leaf shape and arrangement, and have spent little or no time working at the microscopic level. It can be really nice to study things you can see with your naked eyes, but as an ecologist I think it's also important to study those things we can't see plainly. That's part of the reason I think it's so crucial to combine physiological data with demographic data (growth, survival, and reproduction). So that's what I have been doing the last week or so since I got back, including speaking on the phone with at least four different tech support agents from various imaging software companies (including the Netherlands...very interesting).

The image you are seeing is a highly maginifified leaf of an understory herb, called Heliconia tortuosa (or the red twist heliconia). It's a beautiful plant, even up close. I got these images by using what's known as a confocal microscope, which is a very sophisticated type of scope that a lot of developmental biologists use. On that note, I will say that it is nerve-racking to work with very expensive equipment. Personally, I can't help but wonder what might go wrong as I endlessly press buttons and try to maneuver my way through a billion different menus. But at the end of the day it is fun and good to try something new and different. I always live by the quote "do one thing every day that scares you" (I will totally admit that's from the song "Everybody's free to wear sunscreen"). This is especially helpful in the field, when I'm walking over venomous snakes day in and day out...

So getting back to the image, what is SO cool is that all leaves have tiny little openings/pores called stomata, that regulate gas exchange. In the image, they appear as little holes on the leaf underside. Think of stomata as the nose and mouth of a plant. Carbon dioxide goes in, oxygen and water come out. So in theory, if a plant has a lot of stomata is should have a greater capacity to regulate gas exchange, which is crucial when plants are under environment related stress. Think about sitting in the sun on a very hot day and only being able to breathe out of one nostril. It would be really hard and you might asphyxiate. Same thing with plants. Now I believe that the species I'm studying are very sensitive to these changes (based on my ongoing shadehouse experiments), but I'm hopeful that these images will solidify that argument. The ultimate goal is to compare Heliconia tortuosa to a somewhat distantly related species, Calathea crotalifera, and see if the microscopic features back up the physiological data. I'm also comparing stomatal density in leaves of small Heliconia to leaves of large Heliconia, because I think it would be interesting to find out why adults tend to photosynthesize more than juveniles.

In any case, it will take me a few weeks to go through all my images and analyze them, but I'm hopeful that something cool and informative will come of this small project.

Wish me luck!

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