Hospital procedure harms patients…

What would you think if you saw that as a headline? You’d rightly be concerned. After all, you’d assume it was about human patients and, being a human, you’d understandably want to be (re)assured that any procedure carried out on your body in a hospital is safe and not likely to cause you damage. Fear not. This item is about plant ‘patients’.* Not that causing them harm is all right, but at least the pressure’s off from a personal health-harming point of view. But, what’s the story here?

It’s a ‘rapid report’ (sciencepublicationspeak for something that is considered ought to be published quickly – no doubt relevant in this instance because of the ‘alarm bells’ it will ring) by “>Francesco Petruzellis et al. and concerns the technique of synchrotron X‐ray computed micro‐tomography (microCT). In plant science, micro CT uses X-rays to image events or structures within plant organs that are otherwise hidden from view.

The wavelengths and photon energies of X-rays
The wavelengths and photon energies of X-rays and a few applications of X-rays. Ufflund / Wikipedia

Importantly, it’s a so-called non-invasive technique that has been assumed not to damage the botanical entity being investigated. Although X rays are a form of ionising radiation – and which therefore have the potential to cause damage to whatever tissue(s) with which they interact – apparently (and somewhat bizarrely?), the effects of this on plant tissues have never been quantified.

Well, Petruzellis et al. have now quantified those effects with micro CT on stem material of Helianthus annuus (common sunflower), Coffea arabica cv. Pacamara (a coffee variety “not considered very flavorful”), and Populus tremula x alba (an interspecific hybrid of poplar). Amongst the deleterious effects demonstrated were serious alterations to cell membranes and severe damage to RNA integrity.

Whilst it is necessary to do further work to establish how much this damage might compromise the plant’s function, the study is arguably a cause for concern. In the words of Petruzellis et al., “microCT investigation of phenomena that depend on physiological activity of living cells may produce erroneous results and lead to incorrect conclusions”. In the meantime, enjoy the beautiful images of micro CT’d roots on the University of Nottingham (UK)’s Hidden Half web site – whilst you still can!

* And, to be quite clear, this news item ONLY relates to plant studies using this technique. Anybody concerned about micro CT in the context of their own health and well-being must seek the assurance they require from a suitably-qualified professional.

Further reading

Petruzzellis, F., Pagliarani, C., Savi, T., Losso, A., Cavalletto, S., Tromba, G., … Secchi, F. (2018). The pitfalls of in vivo imaging techniques: evidence for cellular damage caused by synchrotron X-ray computed micro-tomography. New Phytologist, 220(1), 104–110. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.15368

Shearer, T., Bradley, R. S., Hidalgo-Bastida, L. A., Sherratt, M. J., & Cartmell, S. H. (2016). Three-dimensional visualisation of soft biological structures by X-ray computed micro-tomography. Journal of Cell Science, 129(13), 2483–2492. https://doi.org/10.1242/jcs.179077

Tracy, S. R., Gómez, J. F., Sturrock, C. J., Wilson, Z. A., & Ferguson, A. C. (2017). Non-destructive determination of floral staging in cereals using X-ray micro computed tomography (µCT). Plant Methods, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13007-017-0162-x

Pajor, R., Fleming, A., Osborne, C. P., Rolfe, S. A., Sturrock, C. J., & Mooney, S. J. (2013). Seeing space: visualization and quantification of plant leaf structure using X-ray micro-computed tomography. Journal of Experimental Botany, 64(2), 385–390. https://doi.org/10.1093/jxb/ers392