by Amber

Closeup: Microscopic World of Plants

We’ve all seen unrealistic drawings or digital facsimiles of chloroplasts. The cells responsible for creating chlorophyll in plants, which are so tiny that the human eye and standard issue microscope cannot detect them. But that’s what they really look like above. An actual closeup photograph of the chloroplasts inside a plant cell.

Who has a microscope this powerful? It takes deep pockets to acquire one. Base models that deliver small images run over $50,000 new. And to get one that gives you these “superior” images? The price tag is $550,000! In the world of biotech, this is a necessity, working with DNA, genes, and product development. University research facilities will have one of these electron microscopes, especially the agricultural colleges. Chances are that agrochemical giants will easily work those super duper, state of the art models into the budget. Which is where I found that amazing image above of actual chloroplasts…

On BASF’s Flikr page. Mind you, healthy chloroplasts don’t have those light colored ‘growths’ on them. They’re just a lovely green, that has a rather smooth surface, though it looks nothing like those classroom lozenge diagrams. BASF is using that scanning electron microscope (SEM) image to show off the chlorophyll inhibiting properties of the active ingredient in their weedkiller, Kixor. Which is what the formations on the chloroplasts are – the active ingredient doing it’s thing in disrupting the plant’s ability to live.

This album has other pictures of minuscule things that exist on or inside plants, both naturally or applied. Interesting. Supposedly this image below is of potato starch. At least that’s what the title and description would lead you to assume.


Potato Leaf Underside (Electron Microscope Image)

Courtesy of BASF via Flikr


GMOs aren’t quite like traditional crop plants, but I’m pretty sure that all potatoes have white starch. A similar shot attributed to BASF clearly identifies this as a potato leaf in the photo description was uncovered on the Eye of Science. So, if you’re going to promote the industrial benefits of your genetically modified potatoes’ starch, wouldn’t it be best to show an image of that instead of the plant’s leaves? Not a very well thought out marketing angle. However, here they’re showing a multitude stoma distributed on the underside of a potato leaf in the small space occupied by less than 2 dozen almost invisible hairs. Interspersed among them are glandular cells – the yellow things.

In the course of making sure this was a potato leaf, and not something else entirely, I came across the image below. What the heck is that!? It looks like a sea of puckered, unopened tulips or rose buds. Nope. It’s petal warts.


Magnified Rose Petal: Surface Warts Make Them Velvety Looking

Courtesy of Eye of Science


These wrinkled single cell protrusions are the reason that rose petals look velvety. They feel soft and smooth, but they’re not. All those minuscule folds on the wart tips absorb or reflect light, giving a rose it’s rich surface. To create velvet requires tightly packed textural depth. Nature does it like this. A bazillion bumps that kind of resemble a rose bud cover the entire petal. Amazing.

What have we here… a single shamrock (oxalis) leaf? Not quite. Splitting a plant’s leaf into two halves this way would be impossible, since they’re so thin. And if it were possible, then where are the veins? Whatever it is, it’s beautiful!


SEM Cross-Section of a Pine Needle's Cellular Structure

Courtesy of Infinity Imagined


It’s a pine needle cross section that’s so highly magnified, the cellular structure looks surreal. Tie-die and hand rolled bead work comes to mind, but it’s more orderly than that, though it is a work of art in itself. But what are all those bits and pieces? This diagram will help identify them:


Pine Needle Structure Diagram

Courtesy of Biology Discussion


Beyond genetic research, and understanding how plants work, SEM imaging has other important uses. They also help identify harmful bacteria and pathogens, like locating the source of food-borne illnesses.


Lettuce Leaf with E. Coli Contamination

Courtesy of AgriLife Today


This shows a lettuce leaf so enlarged you can see inside the stoma. Surprising, given that lettuce leaves look nowhere near this heavily sculpted to the human eye. Check the top of the stoma opening. See the group of rod-shaped things? They’re E. coli bacteria discovered by the AgriLife Research team at Texas A&M University. Now you know why it’s impossible to remove them from the surface of produce. It’s a stealth infiltration. Actually, they need to enter a moist area to survive – good or bad, these kind of life forms perish quickly in a dry environment.

You’ll find many incredible images of the different microscopic structures inside of and on the surface of plants. Some of them so beautiful they look like modern art, but the technology doesn’t create color images. Scanning electron microscopes only show the viewer a world in black and white. The actual images can be very striking on their own, but they take on a whole new perspective in full color. Sometimes they are displayed in as close to true life coloring as humanly possible, but many times they are colored more research purposes than through any desire to show you what it really looks like.


Assorted Pollens Magnified 222 Times

Courtesy of Dartmouth College


An excellent example of a striking black and white SEM image. This is a mixed group of pollens from research done by Louisa Howard at Dartmouth’s Electron Microscope Facility. They look like seashells, but it’s actually pollen from several different plants with the cytoplasm removed to reveal the intricate wall structure.

Fascinated? A person could spend hours just looking at all the different colorings applied with software, and the many plants that have been studied in such magnified detail. Variety in the plant world is incredible. There are more examples on the pages some of these images were found. Click each photo to learn more.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.