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Looking in Vein: Plants Under the Microscope

Microscopes have given biologists a lot of help in viewing organisms too small to be seen by the naked eye. These optical instruments have allowed them to make observations and studies based on what they see through the microscope lens. Scientists have relyed on the compound light microscope to study bacteria and other live microorganisms since Anton van Leeuwenhoek (the father of the microscope) first viewed such life forms for the first time in human history. Of course, studying moving microscopic organisms in pond water (for example) under the microscope is a fun and an interesting activity, but you could learn a lot of things looking at plants under the microscope, too.

Looking at plant samples under the compound light microscope will help the student or child better understand the process of photosynthesis and how plants transfer the food they get with their roots from the soil into the plant’s other parts. Remember that when you eat celery or other leafy vegetables, you have to bite through ‘strings’ which sometimes get caught in between your teeth? Those strings are the veins or ‘pipes’ that carry the nutrients the plants need to all of its parts. Think of the way blood circulates around your body and apply the same principle on plants. Of course, with plants it is chlorophyll and other fluids rather than blood.

Before we begin looking at plants under the microscope, let’s try looking at larger vegetables first. Take a stalk of celery and cut off a piece from one end. Then put some ink in a paper plate and stand your celery stalk in the ink for several minutes to make sure that the stalk absorbs most of the ink before you begin observing it. Wipe off the rest of the ink and try looking at the celery stalk now. You could see dark spots showing on the edges you have cut off. Now turn it about and look at the sides of the stalk. Do you see the dark streaks running along the sides as well? Those are the veins of the celery which have absorbed the ink.

Try cutting a small piece from one end of a stalk. Make sure that the piece is small enough to mount on a blank microscope slide and look at it with a stereo dissecting microscope or a low power objective microscope lens on a student compound microscope. Notice the smaller, crescent shaped veins radiating from a collection of larger veins? The cells surrounding the veins have no color under the microscope lens because they did not absorb any of the ink.

Now let’s try looking at the way that the veins of plants actually work.

Beans are fast growing plants that have well-developed leaves four or five days after you’ve planted them. This makes them essential to laboratory technicians who have to study plants. A budding lab technician yourself (beginning microscopist), you might want to try growing your own beans to look at under the microscope.

For the microscope activity, you need a Syracuse watch glass or staining glass. You could buy this from a drugstore or a place where instruments like beakers and test tubes are sold. Put water in it until it’s half-full and add three drops of India ink. This kind of ink is made of microscopic carbon particles floating in water which makes it ideal for this activity. You could buy small bottles of India ink from bookstores.

Now, cut your bean plant near the roots and stand it in your staining glass. Wait for several minutes as you have done for the celery stalk. Then, without talking the plant off the water, cut a two-inch slice from the end. It would be better to slice slantwise so that you could see a bigger cross section of the plant. Take the rest of the plant stem and place the cut end on a blank staining glass. If the plant is too big, use a pile of books or any such object to support the stem so that it doesn’t droop down from the microscope stage when you mount it. Look at the plant with low power microscope objective. Can you see the India ink running down the veins along with the water? You could adjust the light coming from the microscope to see it better. It might take a while, but the carbon particles from the India ink will clog up the veins of the plant, making the stream of water stop, but by that time, you’ve probably seen most of the process veins carry water all over the plant.

In addition to looking at plants, living organisms are particularly interesting to look under the microscope since there’s a lot of movement to be observed. Living things can be studied using only the light microscope since the vacuum that the electron microscope uses to magnify the image does not allow living subjects to be studied under the electron microscope. Either way, any type of microscope would always be a help in the field of biology.

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