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Pigment Exploration: Putting Color Under the Microscope

Last time you heard from me, I was gushing over the amazing colors of my salad veggies. (Haven’t read my last post? Check in out here:

I thought I’d take it a step further this week and dig into the details of the dazzling displays of reds, greens, purples, and yellows that occur in our photosynthesizing friends. So without further ado, let’s get cellular on color.

Tri-Color Tomato Mush for Seed Saving

Within every plant cell, there are three organelles (think: cell organs) that carry pigment:

1. Chloroplasts

2. Chromoplasts

3. Vacuoles

Here’s a little table to break down the differences:

Looking back over the organelle functions the table might seem a bit crowded, and I think that it highlights what is most important. The color that appears in our food, or on our ornamental plants, is not solely something that has been selected for throughout botanical domestication. These colors are indicators of much more important functions that take place behind the cell walls of plants.

What’s beautiful on the plate may actually be what allowed that plant to be successful enough to evolve through millennia of natural selection to get into our bellies.

Although some food photography have praised the idea of all-one-color diets, it’s probably best to eat from the whole rainbow. A recent trip to the National Science Academy in San Francisco informed me that flamingoes are only pink because of a natural pink dye that is in their wild food sources, and an artificial version of that dye that’s added to their food in captivity. This rose-y factoid reminded me of some stories I’ve been told about orange babies, who ate a few too many carotenoids in the form of squash and carrot mash.

But, of course, that's not the last cool thing I want to share with you…

Changing Roles: A Case Study in Plant Color Over a Growing Season

Look at that lovely green shirt, so nice!

But wait, it's changing... Something new is showing up from underneath the heavy green cover.

As the green faded out (with the seasons, perhaps) the red shows up! Crazy that it was under there the whole time...

(Disclaimer: This example originated in the Plant Biology class I took my freshman year of college, taught by Dr. David Steingraeber. It has been remembered fondly and reinterpreted here so more people can enjoy it!)


So, I want to know: What gets you excited about plants? What do you want to know more about? Does the word organelle make you happy like it does me?

That’s it for this week. We should be sticking to a two week schedule for posts going forward, so stay tuned!

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