Scientists have long studied the internal processes of leaves in two dimensions, yet most of life’s processes occur in three. A technology recently developed and implemented at Yale allows researchers to create more complete models of the inside of leaves in 3D. The Brodersen lab, led by Craig Brodersen, Assistant Professor of Plant Physiological Ecology, is spearheading the usage of this technology to better understand processes such as carbon-water transport inside leaves.
“We knew there was an incredible amount of diversity in terms of the structure of the insides of leaves, but no one had really taken a look at the three-dimensional structure,” said Mason Earles, a former postdoc in the Brodersen lab.
How did researchers go about imaging leaves in 3D? “We have been using x-ray micro-imaging…it’s basically a 3D x-ray,” answered Brodersen. The leaf imaging technology is comparable to a medical CT scan, except on a smaller scale and with an extremely powerful x-ray source.
A recently published paper by Earles explores the use of this imaging technology in studying water and carbon transport and how leaf structures affect its functionality.
“An interesting piece of the whole 3D puzzle [is] the air space of inside of leaves, which has been a really overlooked piece of the equation,” said Earles. Using 3D imaging to model these patterned air spaces allows researchers to better understand intricate processes like water loss and carbon dioxide capture. This is just the beginning of a new wave of research based on observations only made possible by 3D imaging, research with the potential to teach us more about the complex and diverse processes of life than we could have ever imagined in two dimensions.