A ray gun-like device helps scientists see plants in a different light

The Dryas plant is a small evergreen shrub found in Alpine-like environments found on Alaskan mountains.

(CNN)Scientists are aiming little ray gun-like devices, called leaf clips, at plants in an attempt to better understand biodiversity as environments respond to the climate crisis.

Not unlike the tricorder used to perform environment scans in "Star Trek," the nifty gadget is a type of spectroradiometer that helps record how plant leaves reflect light differently -- which actually reveals how genetically diverse one plant population is from another.
In a new study, a team of scientists used the leaf clip to record light reflected off plant leaves of two species of an evergreen shrub on different Alaskan mountains. The two plants were Dryas alaskensis and Dryas ajanensis. The populations of plants that the team analyzed on neighboring mountains were genetically different. This means that even though they are only separated by a few miles, the populations are genetically isolated because they aren't sharing pollen.
    Understanding the genetic diversity of these plants, as well as their need for conservation, fits into the broader goal of protecting Earth's natural biodiversity.
      The Dryas plant populations on neighboring mountains were genetically distinct from one another.
      The study published Tuesday in the journal New Phytologist.
      "While trained biologists can usually walk into the field and identify species with their eyes, it takes expensive genetic analyses to reveal the populations -- groups of individuals of the same species within a gene pool -- that are so important for conservation and evolutionary research," said co-lead study author Dawson White, a postdoctoral researcher at Chicago's Field Museum, in a statement.
      "In this new study, we've shown that you can use light instead of DNA to define plant populations, at a similar level of detail. This new method is a lot faster and cheaper than genetic testing, which could dramatically increase our efficiency at mapping and monitoring biodiversity."
        Researchers used leaf clips to analyze the light reflecting off the leaves of Dryas plants in Alaska.
        When botanists study plants to better understand their chemistry or genetics, it means collecting and storing plant samples, and taking careful measurements using microscopes, chemical testing or gene sequencing -- all of which can be costly and time consuming, said Lance Stasinski, study co-lead author and graduate student researcher at the University of Maine.

        A valuable field tool

        But the leaf clip "opens up many doors into studying plants" that can limit the time and money typically spent on these analyses, Stasinski said. And it's a much more immediate result that can be gathered in the field.
        "There is a lot of information that can be gathered from light reflected from leaves," he said. "A short list of features includes: leaf pigments, leaf structure, water content, nitrogen and carbon content, and more. You can then use that light to differentiate species considering individual plants within the same group share the aforementioned features."
        "For example, we see the co