Watching Sugars Move in Plants

New radiolabeled compound used to image sucrose transport.

Image courtesy of Michael Harmata, University of Missouri–Columbia
A new radiolabeled sugar compound helps researchers image carbohydrate movement in plants. Green shows the location of the sugar compound 1 hour after application to leaf tip (red box) in wild type (WT) corn and a mutant (sut1) lacking a sucrose transporter gene. (Maize plants supplied by David Braun, images by David Rotsch and Thomas Brossard.)

The Science

Fluorine-18 is a radioactive isotope that emits positrons, or positively charged subatomic particles that have the same mass and magnitude of charge as negative electrons. Using positron emission tomography (PET), scientists can image within living organisms the movement and localization of molecules containing fluorine-18.

The Impact

Results from this study will enable investigators to image sucrose metabolism in living plants, thereby gaining insight into plant metabolic pathways with potential value for biofuel production.


Fluorine-18-labeled fluorosugars, or natural sugars into which fluorine-18 atoms have been incorporated, enable study of the mechanisms by which living organisms use and process these biomolecules and offer opportunities to observe sugar distribution and metabolism in real time. Fluorine-18 fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) has already been established as an important PET imaging agent in human medicine. Now, Department of Energy (DOE) scientists at the University of Missouri–Columbia have devised a similar technique for imaging sugar movement in vascular plants, which are known to transport the bulk of their carbohydrate load in the form of sucrose. The researchers synthesized fluorine-18 fluorodeoxysucrose (FDS) and used it to obtain the first images of corn plant leaves that demonstrate real-time transport of the sugar.


Michael Harmata
Department of Chemistry, University of Missouri–Columbia
Columbia, MO 65211


This work was generously supported by a grant (DE-SC0002040) from the DOE Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research program.


Gaddam, V., and Harmata, M. “Synthesis of 6′-deoxy-6′-fluorosucrose.”Carbohydr. Res. 369, 38–41 (2013). [DOI: 10.1016/j.carres.2012.12.001]

Related Links

Rotsch, D., et al. “Automated 18F labeling of sucrose for transporter studies in plants via PET.” J. Labelled. Compds. Radiopharm. 56, S118 (2013).

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