The field of plant science is in the process of being profoundly transformed by new imaging and modeling technologies. These tools are allowing scientists to peer inside the leaf with a clarity and resolution inconceivable a generation ago.

A team of Australian and U.S. scientists have demonstrated how 3D imaging can now reproduce the inner reality of the leaf, including the dynamic carbon and water exchange processes.

Professor John Evans from the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University said that although leaves and plant cells are three dimensional, plant biologists use highly simplified 1D or 2D models, evading the difficult, confounding, and beautiful 3D reality. "The leaf is an amazingly complex landscape, where water and gases flow in many directions depending on variables such as temperature, light quality, and wind. 3D images give you an understanding of what is really happening,” he explained. “These technologies make it possible to answer very interesting questions, some of which have eluded scientists for many years.”

The images are created from biological specimens by integrating 2D leaf measurements to create 3D volumes and surfaces. The 3D representation enables an anatomically correct basis for modeling and biophysical simulations to provide a dynamic view of the processes inside plant cells and tissues.

The scientists predict that using a collaborative approach, they will be able to answer, within the next decade, outstanding questions about how the 3D special arrangement of organelles, cells, and tissues affects photosynthesis and transpiration.