Tomography Tool Allows CSU Bakersfield to Look Within Plants to See How They Thrive—or Don’t




On the hillsides and in the forests of Southern California, the effects of drought are obvious: bone-dry vegetation and trees withered and dying—potential fuel for wildfires. But the real story, at least for scientists, is what’s going on within. It is there that these plants tell their stories of resilience or desolation, triumph over nature or surrender to it. 

At CSU Bakersfield, that story and scores of others are being told now, thanks to a microcomputerassisted tomography system, which has opened a world of discovery at the university since its arrival in 2017. 

So rare is the micro-scanner that samples from as far away as Spain are sent to CSU Bakersfield for analyses. Teams from research-focused institutions such as University of California, Riverside, Santa Cruz, Davis and Berkeley, to name a few, have come to study at CSU Bakersfield to collaborate using the scanner. 

But the most promising research, with real-time application, is happening in the university’s backyard, in the fields that grow the nation’s crops and industries that power our economy including: 

  • Nut growers using the scanner to understand drought tolerance. 
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers sending grapevine samples in the fight against Pierce’s Disease, a mysterious bacterial infection that decimates grapes. 
  • Local industries using the scanner to understand how their products improve crop productivity. 

“There are so many applications,” said Dr. R. Brandon Pratt, professor of biology at CSU Bakersfield, who led the team that wrote the successful U.S. Department of Defense grant that made purchase of the micro-scanner possible.

“It helps us understand the inner workings of plants, particularly with droughts. Our work is aimed at understanding the mechanisms of what kills plants during drought and getting detailed imaging of how a plant succumbs, or not. Not all plants are withering and dying. There are winners and losers.” 

Dr. Pratt is working with graduate student Viridiana Castro to research shrublands in the southern Sierra Nevada, a little-studied environment. On a recent afternoon, he demonstrated the incredibly high-resolution scans from the vascular system of a poplar tree, images so detailed that even the Belgium-based maker of the $1 million scanner was astonished. Pointing to small oval-shaped clusters, Pratt explained that gas bubbles prevent the tree from soaking up water. 

“That was a pretty exciting scan for us where the resolution was less than one-billionth of an inch, and for the Belgians, too. This is the first sample we are going to print with our new 3D printer to share with our students and visitors to the lab.”