The wavelengths and photon energies of X-rays
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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.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [] (and formerly at Botany One []). In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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