Temperatures below the freezing point of water and the ensuing ice crystal formation pose serious challenges to cell structure and function. Consequently, species living in seasonally cold environments have evolved a multitude of strategies to reorganize their cellular architecture and metabolism, and the underlying mechanisms are crucial to our understanding of life. In multicellular organisms, and poikilotherm animals in particular, our knowledge about these processes is almost exclusively due to invasive studies, thereby limiting the range of conclusions that can be drawn about intact living systems.
Given that non-destructive techniques like 1H Magnetic Resonance (MR) imaging and spectroscopy have proven useful for in vivo investigations of a wide range of biological systems, we aimed at evaluating their potential to observe cold adaptations in living insect larvae. Specifically, we chose two cold-hardy insect species that frequently serve as cryobiological model systems–the freeze-avoiding gall moth Epiblema scudderiana and the freeze-tolerant gall fly Eurosta solidaginis.
In vivo MR images were acquired from autumn-collected larvae at temperatures between 0°C and about −70°C and at spatial resolutions down to 27 µm. These images revealed three-dimensional (3D) larval anatomy at a level of detail currently not in reach of other in vivo techniques. Furthermore, they allowed visualization of the 3D distribution of the remaining liquid water and of the endogenous cryoprotectants at subzero temperatures, and temperature-weighted images of these distributions could be derived. Finally, individual fat body cells and their nuclei could be identified in intact frozen Eurosta larvae.
These findings suggest that high resolution MR techniques provide for interesting methodological options in comparative cryobiological investigations, especially in vivo.