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A New Way of Seeing by Dave Caldwell

There are worlds within worlds.

Doubters of that proposition need travel no further than the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility to be convinced of its veracity. Directed by Dr. Nina Allen, the facility gives faculty and students access to some of the most powerful tools available to science. The facility also provides access to startling worlds beyond the scope of human vision.

Longitudinal section of a corn plant

What may seem ordinary to the unaided eye can become extraordinary when viewed through the microscopes in the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility. This image was produced using a technique called dark field polarizing light microscopy. It is a longitudinal sections of the stem of a corn plant.

The Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility houses state-of-the-art light microscopes, including a confocal fluorescence video microscope, an extraordinary machine capable of peering deep within tissue.

“The video capability allows changes (in living tissue) to be seen in real time,” says Dr. Eric Davies, botany department head. “This is the only system available that can see changes occurring in real time. It turns out the inside of a plant cell is much more mobile than an animal cell. We can see movement within a cell, often deep within tissue.”

This ability to observe movement has been particularly important to scientists involved in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Specialized Center of Research and Training in Gravitational Biology. NASA selected the college as the site for the center in late 1995 and is providing approximately $1 million annually over a five-year period to fund it. Plants would likely play an integral role in long-distance space travel, and NASA wants to know more about how plants respond to gravity and weightlessness.

But scientists studying gravitational biology are hardly the only ones making use of the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility. In addition to researchers throughout the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, scientists from the colleges of Forest Resources, Engineering, Textiles, Veterinary Medicine, and Physical and Mathematical Sciences have used the facility.

The facility is also a classroom. Operating its sophisticated microscopes requires considerable expertise, expertise that students may acquire.

Grains of Pollen

Students and scientists alike learn from the images viewed through the microscopes, but the images themselves are often remarkable, as the reproductions here demonstrate.