The Natural History Museum in London has teamed up with the UK’s premier particle accelerator to produce very high resolution three-dimensional scans of the insects it has in its collection. It is hoped that the scans will create a permanent digital record of the morphology of these creatures which will, in turn, allow future generations of scientists to better understand their evolution. New techniques have been developed by the museum’s own team and Diamond Light Source, the British particle accelerator located at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.
The idea is to use the national synchrotron laboratory to boost the resolution detail by which both fossil insect specimens and their living counterparts can be scanned. A synchrotron is a type of particle accelerator which uses a fixed closed-loop pathway to bend electrons with powerful electro-magnets. The reason that this technology is useful in producing high-definition 3D scans is that a by-product of the process is that it will produce a very intense light, known as synchrotron light. With this light, so superbly detailed images of anything can, theoretically speaking, be produced. The Natural History Museum is thought to be the first public institution to utilise the technology for scanning animals in an effort to understand how they have evolved through time.
The scans will cover the current species we see around today as well as many of the specimens the museum has of insects from the past. Insects have been around for a very long time, of course, and have been constantly evolving for at least 350 million years. The museum possesses in the region of 35 million insect specimens of insect species in its collection. The scientific institution has been collecting them for all of its 300-year history. As well as some of the tiniest fleas to ever have existed, the museum has specimens of some of the world’s most eye-catching insects, such as giant butterflies, for example.
Diversification and Distinctiveness
Part of the project is to help researchers get to grips with the astounding diversity in insect life that exists today as well as the historical record. An improved understanding of the physical differences between such insects, it is hoped, will lead scientists to comprehend not just how certain species evolved but where and what sort of environmental change they were under that led to certain evolutionary paths being followed. Of course, such research is possible without high-tech scanning techniques being deployed. However, a digital scan can be shared instantly whereas a physical examination of a specimen means handling it in person.
The Natural History Museum’s enormous collection of insects offers a potentially unparalleled amount of data about this animal kingdom. In the past, the museum has scanned large numbers of insects. Approximately, 1.6 million insect specimens in the museum’s collection have already been put into the digital realm using photography. However, the museum’s Digital Collections Programme only holds two-dimensional photographs of insects. Although there are labels and transcripts that add context to each image through the museum’s Data Portal, it is hoped that the introduction of high-quality 3D scans will be much more useful for the sort of research that today’s generation of scientists want to undertake.
Big Data and Biology
Describing the complex shape in detail of any insect takes a great deal of data. It is also very time-consuming with traditional techniques. These are both limiting factors on what can be put into the public domain and a brake on the sort of research that could help us to understand how the natural world adapts to changing environmental pressures, of course. However, by working in collaboration with Diamond Light Source, it is now expected that a digitisation programme of up to 1,000 specimens per day could be rendered in high-resolution 3D by the Natural History Museum. In turn, this will create a completely new data set for researchers to use while the transition from the photographic record is being made.
One of the research leaders at the museum, Professor Anjali Goswami, said that the project will bring an unparalleled level of detail and understanding of an animal kingdom that encompasses over half of all known species to science. Goswami, who has been deeply involved in the digital scanning programme thus far went on to say that she thought an entirely new field of science, biodiversity phenomics, had been created. “[This will]… lay the foundation for mapping phenotypic diversification on a truly worldwide scale,” she said. “It will offer new perspectives on the evolution of life on Earth.”
Goswami also stated that she thought scientific efforts, thus far, had tended to focus on mapping where species might live in order to forecast how they could be potentially impacted by environmental change. “Nevertheless, not all organisms respond uniformly to changes in their environment,” she said. The professor pointed out that some species of insect may be larger than the norm, some will be highly specialised while others are generalists. In addition, factors like whether they are carnivores or herbivores will all shape their success as a species as environments alter over time. This is why getting a better understanding of their morphology as well as their locational data can be so important. “’This big data project on species biology is vital to enable more targeted conservation efforts,” she said. “[It should help us]… to slow the devastating decline in numbers of insect species as well as their extinction rate.”
According to a statement made by the Natural History Museum, the ability to compare disparate groups of insects – ones that are extinct as well as those which are currently thriving – will also offer scientists an unprecedented level of insight into how these creatures evolved over the last few hundred million years.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.