NIFA Grant Brings Microscopic Images Into Sharp Focus for Bumpers College Scientists and Students

Fiona Goggin (left) and Clemencia Rojas are in the lab with several components of the Leica Stellaris 8 confocal microscope visible in the background. The image capture (right) on the monitor shows an aphid feeding on a leaf. The way the fluorescence of the leaf changes in response to the aphid helps scientists study plant defense responses to aphid attack.
Micayla Blair

Fiona Goggin (left) and Clemencia Rojas are in the lab with several components of the Leica Stellaris 8 confocal microscope visible in the background. The image capture (right) on the monitor shows an aphid feeding on a leaf. The way the fluorescence of the leaf changes in response to the aphid helps scientists study plant defense responses to aphid attack.

Microscopic images will now be sharper without distracting and distorting out-of-focus light for researchers, scientists and students in multiple academic disciplines in U of A's Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences.

Clemencia Rojas, assistant professor, and Fiona Goggin, professor, both in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, together with a group of faculty in their department (assistant professors Alejandro Rojas and Martin Egan) and the departments of crop, soil and environmental sciences (professors Vibha Srivastava and Mary Savin), animal science (associate professor Jiangchao Zhao) and poultry science (professor Sami Dridi), received a $481,121 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The NIFA award, together with $250,000 from the U of A Research and Innovation Office, allowed them to acquire a state-of-the art confocal microscope.

"It allows us to visualize three-dimensional structures in cells with high resolution," Rojas said. "We can image living cells and observe in real time all the dynamic processes that are occurring inside the cells."

These images allow scientists to tell when and where important events occur when plants and animals encounter environmental stress or other organisms, such as microbes and insects. This information is important because the timing and location of immune responses can determine the difference between sickness and health for plants and animals.

Confocal microscopy offers several advantages over conventional widefield optical microscopy, including the ability to control the depth of field, to eliminate out-of-focus light, and to collect serial optical sections from thick specimens. These capabilities make it possible to construct three-dimensional images of specimens, including live samples, that are too thick for conventional microscopy. 

"Confocal microscopy requires labeling molecules and subcellular structures with fluorescent dyes, and the lasers that are built in activate those fluorescent molecules, allowing us to see the cells,"Rojas said. "Some of us working with plant tissues face particular challenges due to a lot of autofluorescence in plants that overlap with the specs of most microscopes. This particular microscope is equipped with a white light laser that allows us to choose any possible combination of wavelengths to more precisely tune what we want to see and avoid the natural autofluorescence that tissues might have."

The white light laser, as well as advanced, highly sensitive detector systems, make this microscope, a Leica Stellaris 8, the most advanced confocal microscope on campus and in the state. The microscope is part of a fee-based core facility accessible by research groups at the U of A and the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the research arm of the U of A System Division of Agriculture. 

"The microscope will be used by a multidisciplinary team of scientists from multiple departments to study stress physiology and the impacts of microbial communities on plants, animals and soil ecosystems," Goggin said. "The ultimate goal of this work is to develop strategies to protect the health and productivity of crops, livestock and agricultural lands."

About the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences: Bumpers College provides life-changing opportunities to position and prepare graduates who will be leaders in the businesses associated with foods, family, the environment, agriculture, sustainability and human quality of life; and who will be first-choice candidates of employers looking for leaders, innovators, policy makers and entrepreneurs. The college is named for Dale Bumpers, former Arkansas governor and longtime U.S. senator who made the state prominent in national and international agriculture. For more information about Bumpers College, visit our website, and follow us on Twitter at @BumpersCollege and Instagram at BumpersCollege.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas' economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the top 3% of U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.

About the Division of Agriculture: The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation's historic land grant education system.

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.


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