At Guelph presents this story as part of a series that highlights University of Guelph leadership in teaching excellence and the scholarship of learning.
Most people think of plants as inanimate objects, but they’re not. Just because plants don’t move around doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening within their leaves, stems and roots. Plant cells are constantly active, and now it’s possible to observe this cellular activity as it happens.
Prof. Jaideep Mathur, Molecular and Cellular Biology, is using technology called confocal laser scanning microscopy to capture live video of a plant cell’s organelles, making textbook publishers green with envy. Textbooks have their limitations, he says, because they only provide a two-dimensional snapshot of plant cell activity. “If you added a time dimension to that, things would change,” he says. He’s using the videos, which condense up to several hours of cellular activity, to give students a new perspective on plant cells.
An artist since childhood, Mathur first applied his painting skills to the study of plant cells. “In 1994, I started looking at ways of colorizing things inside plant cells,” he says. But this was no ordinary painting: the canvas was microscopic in size and no paintbrush was small enough to colour individual organelles. While working at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, he began using a green fluorescent protein found in jellyfish and expressed the cloned gene in plants. The protein causes the organelles to adopt a greenish glow.
But why stop at one colour? “Now we have gone onto every colour in the rainbow,” says Mathur. “Essentially we can pick and choose whichever colour we want to give to an organelle inside the cell.” Studying thousands of mitochondria, for example, can be a challenge if they’re all the same colour. Using a fine laser beam, he can change the fluorescent colour of a single organelle, making it easier to track.
Mathur studies how plants respond to environmental stress. Unlike animals, plants can’t move to a more comfortable location when it gets too hot, cold, wet or dry. Instead, plants have developed coping mechanisms that allow them to withstand less than favourable conditions.
“I’m a dedicated plant biologist because I am simply fascinated by these organisms,” says Mathur. “For me, the fascination is how do they manage it?” If a catastrophic event happened on Earth, he adds, plants would be more likely to survive than animals because plants don’t waste energy on movement like animals do.
As co-instructor for a third-year plant course, Mathur provides each of his students with a mutant plant to study how its growth and development differs from a normal plant. “Unless you have seen a seed germinate and grow all the way into a flowering plant, you don’t really get that appreciation,” he says. “It is the students who act as discoverers and uncover all these facts for themselves.”
Mathur also manages a free educational website called The Illuminated Plant Cell, where researchers can submit their videos of various organelles. Used by 30 institutes worldwide, the website receives about 3,000 visitors per month.