New methodologies…

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the olden days – e.g. the 19th Century – science was severely hampered by the lack of technology to perform the experiments that those gentlemen (sorry, gentlewomen…) of the 20th and 21st Centuries of great vision and imagination conjured up. Today, we have access to an unparalleled arsenal of techniques and equipment to test our hypotheses (it is often our imagination that lets us down…). But that is not to say that we can’t use even more new methods and kit. So, here’s a bit of a catalogue of recent developments/break-through technologies in plant biology.

Whilst hormones (plant growth regulators?…) don’t control everything botanical, they are major players in co-ordinating growth and development. So, it would be useful to be able to see where they are in planta. Well, Géraldine Brunoud et al. report a ‘novel sensor to map auxin response and distribution at high spatio-temporal resolution’. Amongst other things, this method ‘provides a map of relative auxin distribution at cellular resolution in different tissues’. The method was exploited to very good effect in demonstrating that ‘root gravitropism is regulated by a transient lateral auxin gradient controlled by a tipping-point mechanism’. Fed-up with the tedium of weekly subculture of plant cell suspensions? Well, fret no more: Anne-Marie Boisson et al. report ‘a simple and efficient method for the long-term preservation of plant cell suspension cultures’.

Too busy searching for your next post-doc position to solve protein structures yourself? Crowd-source it! This is how the still-unsolved-after-more-than-10-years-of-study problem of the folding of a protein was tackled, by an army of virtual lab assistants playing the ‘protein folding game’, Foldit – ‘an online puzzle video game about protein folding’. OK, so this work was actually done with ‘a retroviral protease of the Mason–Pfizer monkey virus, which causes an AIDS-like disease in monkeys’, but surely the principle’s the same for plant proteins. Envious of the ease with which your colleagues working with Nicotiana benthamiana can perform Agrobacterium-mediated transient transformation by leaf infiltration? Not any more! Kenichi Tsuda et al. present a protocol for an ‘efficient Agrobacterium-mediated transient transformation of Arabidopsis’. I know, and you thought we could do EVERYTHING with Arabidopsis, already. Well, looks like we can now! And many high-resolution methodologies and measurement techniques are showcased/reviewed in a special issue of our favourite journal about plants [second-favourite, surely? – Ed.], and a useful editorial overview is provided by Asaph Aharoni and Federica Brandizzi. One contribution that caught my eye was Ljudmilla Borisjuk et al.’s ‘Surveying the plant’s world by magnetic resonance imaging’, which shows the ingenuity of the botanist in adopting and adapting a technique more usually associated with biomedical applications.

Penultimately, Guido Grossmann et al. present the RootChip – ‘an integrated microfluidic chip for plant science’, which aims to overcome the acknowledged problems of studying development and physiology of growing roots. The RootChip integrates live-cell imaging of growth and metabolism of Arabidopsis thaliana roots with rapid modulation of environmental conditions, and can cope with multiple roots from multiple seedlings in parallel. As presented it sounds impressive, but am I wrong in thinking that roots tend to grow in the dark, in soil? Well, the image accompanying the article shows roots in transparent plastic tubes, in a well-lit lab. Maybe that’s just for purposes of illustration and the meaningful measurements, etc, are made when the roots are in their native darkened state.

Finally, recognising that the ability to quantify the geometry of plant organs at the cellular scale can provide novel insights into their structural organisation, Andrew French et al. present a tool to count and measure individual neighbouring cells along a defined file in confocal laser scanning microscope images. Amongst other uses, the Cell-o-Tape tool can be used to provide an estimate of the position of transition into the elongation zone of an Arabidopsis root – a location apparently ‘sensitive’ to the subjectivity of the experimenter. Quite a list – which is by no means exhaustive! – but, my personal favourite is… Cell-o-Tape. And I’m sticking to it!

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About Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic in a UK university. As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an amusing, educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.