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Plant microscopy love – Meet the Flora-L team

Meet the Flora-L Design Team

Flora-L Design creates print patterns from images of plants under the microscope. The three scientists behind the startup, Delphine, Melissa and podcast hostess Judith got to know each other as postdocs in Umeå, Sweden more than 10 years ago. They bonded over their love of plants, microscopy and textiles and founded Flora-L Design in 2019.

In this podcast episode the three plant-biologists share
– what their first contacts with plants were like as kids
– from where their desire to study plants grew
– what brought them to appreciate microscopy
– how they see the process of making patterns from microscopy images
– how they connect with plants in their everyday life
– what they recommend as summer activities around plants

When was your first contact with plants ?

Delphine: When I was 6 years old I grew potatoes with my mum on our balcony, which was enough for one omelette for myself. My garden experience was rather at my grandparents’ place and I myself lived until recently in flats. My interest for studying plants came much later when I was choosing my university path. I had a strong interest in immunology but couldn’t imagine that one could become anything else than a doctor pursuing this career path, which I today know wasn’t true. So I opted for plant biology. My mum used to foster our scientific interest by exposing us and discussing with us all the small details in nature and doing small experiments at home; even though she didn’t have any scientific background. It fostered my curiosity for science.

Lab image vibratome
Vibratome for making thin slices from plant material in preparation for microscopy

Judith: That is really interesting. I had a strong interest in immunology as well at the university and hesitated for some time whether to go on with this or to move into plant biology. My heart called for the plants and I followed it. How was this for you Melissa?

Melissa: I remember having an encyclopedia with Disney characters for kids when I was a little girl. I was amazed by a picture of Lily pads in the book. It just fascinated me so much that I thought that one day I could live on a lily pad 😉 Also my mum was a teacher and was teaching about nature at school. She encouraged our curiosity also at home and it was natural for us to approach the world with curiosity. In university though, just like you Delphine and Judith, I was first much more intrigued by neuroscience and the function of the human brain. I opted for a botany class just because it perfectly fitted into my schedule. It was more about algae and fungi rather than actual plants. I got so fascinated by them and by looking at the cells under the microscope and discovering aspects such as bioluminescence that I decided to continue my path into plant biology and botany.

Design process from plant to pattern

Did microscopy got you hooked right away?

Delphine: I had a microscope as a child that I was using it quite a lot. I was looking at pre-made specimen of insects and other things but my interest stopped there. Then later at university I started to need it. In my Bachelor’s I observed plant viruses under the electron microscopy and later on I had to do more light microscopy and to observe specimen. It’s only in my postdoc, after my PhD, that my microscopy experience exploded. My project was focused on organelles, the structures inside the cells. I did a lot of confocal microscopy (looking at fluorescence). It’s a love and hate relationship. As much as I love to see the processes in the cells, I hated to sit in the basement of our institute in dark rooms. Dark rooms are necessary if you want to see fluorescence of tiny things in cells. Sometimes that made me divert to just take pretty picture of nice structures, just to keep the spirit up down in the dark room in the basement. Microscopy came quite naturally in my projects without me ever choosing it directly. How was that for you Judith, did you do microscopy from early on through your studies?

Judith: Well, I came into plant-biology on a side-track. I first studied biochemistry in my Bachelor’s and there was no microscopy involved. But then in my Master’s in France I discovered plant biology by working in a greenhouse at the university in Strasbourg. I just loved to see how plants can be studied from seed to seed, seeing the whole developmental process in the entire organisms. That made me choose plant biology. Then I moved to Lyon for my Masters and I studied how pollen (male part of the plant) are recognized by the papillae cells on the stigma (the female part of the flower). I loved to see how pollen grow pollentubes when they land on the papilla cells. If you look at that with fluorescence it looks like a bouquet of flowers under the microscope. That was just WOW! There were also hard experiments that failed but I enjoyed anyway sitting at the microscope. And I may have observed structures some times that were just pretty and took images of them to share them with others and discuss them even though they were not the objective of my project. I then made a choice to look for a PhD project that involved microscopy as I loved it so much and wanted to learn more. The process of microscopy, while rewarding, can be hard and needs a lot of patience. It’s usually not high throughput but rather one-image-at-a-time. Melissa how was that for you?

Microscopy in the lab
Picture: S. Robert

Melissa: I always enjoyed microscopy and I did lots of hand-sections. That’s much quicker to prepare plant material for microscopy compared to embedded materials that needs to be sectioned with special machines. I studied flax fibers and spend lots of time hand-sectioning flax stems. Microscopy was very important for me to understand where which cells and tissues in the plants are and to understand and lay the right ground for my biological questions. My supervisor even found a vibratome, which is a machine with a vibrating knife used to make thin (10-30µm thick) slices of material. I googled some instructions that matched the machine and got it working. I was the only person in the lab to use it and it made beautiful sections. This is helpful when handsections, that are usually more hundreds of µm thick were too thick to see the cells. I also did later on in my postdoc electron microscopy but felt more disconnected from my material as the sample prep, which is complex and requires experience, was done by people of the microscopy platform. I enjoy when I can work with fresh tissue and go from the plant to some cuttings direct under the microscope.

Carrot as sample holder
Carrot as a sample holder for preparing thin sections of plant material

Delphine: I can relate to that, my experience requested often a few days of sample preparation from the fresh plant to a microscopy session. It took me a while to learn also about plant anatomy and the different tissues in the plant. Especially in fluorescence microscopy, where you see fluorescing spots on a dark background, this was tricky. For me wearing glasses made it sometimes difficult to look through the eye-pieces of the microscope. When we got a new microscope I could just look at the screen and there my pleasure increased significantly and my headaches decreased.

Judith: Melissa, I remember that you actually showed me how to use a carrot as a sample holder for doing hand-sections of small plant parts. That was a great way of sectioning materials that were too small to hold with the hand.

The pattern making process

Today we use our images in a very different way for making patterns with them and playing with colours and shapes. How do you find this process Melissa? Are you always able to identify the initial structures that the pattern comes form? It does indeed happen that one of us makes the pattern and the others first see the final result.

Melissa: I have such a love for microscopy and botany and I can usually tell where the original cells and materials come from. Yet it’s fascinating to see when we for example make patterns from similar materials and then all our patterns look different. The variation in them is fascinating.

Delphine: That’s a skill I don’t have as I’m less experienced with general plant anatomy. I am much more familiar with the organelles inside the cells and identifying them but for the tissue it’s more difficult. When it comes to the patterns I don’t really see before I have assembled it how the pattern will look like. Other people may be able to predict how it will look like. I am a colour person and I love color. I love the shades that staining with toluidine blue gives, it’s shades of blue, green, purple. Also changing the colors of a pattern is a process that I appreciate a lot.

Lab environment with Flora-L cushion

Judith: For me it’s really the wealth of pattern variation we can get from the same microscopy image that I find so exciting. And even though many plants have indeed somewhat similar anatomy, it’s still different enough for us to get very different patterns. And then it also depends on which kind of starting material we use. Electron microscopy images are by nature black and white, and so are basically also fluorescence images. In comparison, light microscopy images can have different colours depending on the stain that has been used on the material. But let’s leave the microscopy behind for a moment.

Are there any places around the world that you would love to visit for their plants?

Melissa: Baobab trees in Madagascar would be something I would love to see. It’s so other worldly that’s what’s fascinating me. I also love going to see Vancouver island to see the big cedar rainforests there. And why not a visit to Kew gardens for seeing big lily pads.

Delphine: I can’t say a specific place but I love very lush green places, may it be France, Sweden and even tropical areas. But too arid areas are not so much to my liking. Even though I like the lavender fields in Southern France.


Judith: I like seeing plants as part of a landscape but also specific plants. I was very surprised when visiting New Zealand. Despite the fact that the climate is so alike Europe, the vegetation is totally different. The many fern species in the forest there make it a very different experience. I was also amazed by the gigantic redwood trees in New Zealand. But then I think even arid and alpine areas that are less lush can have interesting vegetation. The previous episodes of the podcast have opened my eyes for this. Lastly, I also enjoy my houseplants a lot.

Finally, do you have any plant related tips for the summer vacation?

Delphine: Watch out for botanical gardens, there’s always interesting things to discover.

Melissa: Try to go more attentively to the forest and identify some species. See how leaves are shaped differently and distinguish more than just a “green wall”. Using a book you can also try to identify some plants.

Judith: I love plant development and recommend you do some growth experiments in your garden or on your windowsill. Peas for example can be easily germinated. Observe how the seed germinates, how the seedling looks like, the first leaves and how the stature of the plant develops. Do you see angles of leaves to each other? And especially with peas you will notice tendrils where the pea wants to attach to something. Observe them how they grab onto a stick. Isn’t it amazing how a plant can sense its environment and react to it?

speciment on microscopy slides
speciment on microscopy slides

We wish you a lovely summer and welcome you back to new episodes of the Flora and Friends podcast in august!

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