Professor Javier Alba Tercedor of the University of Granada in Spain was recently awarded the Best Film of the Year Award for his stunning video of the delicate inner structures of a beetle. The film was created using x-ray microtomography, a non-invasive technique that uses x-rays to create incredibly detailed images. When compiled together, the video created by these images intertwines both science and artistry.
Professor Javier Alba Tercedor’s science film masterpiece, entitled Micro-CT anatomical study of the female of an aquatic beetle was presented and awarded at the SkyScan Micro CT Meeting. SkyScan is the brand name of some of the industry’s best high-resolution desktop x-ray microtomography (Micro-CT) systems. In 2007 the University of Granada acquired one model known as the SkyScan 1172. Over the following seven years Professor Alba Tercedor has become an enthusiast and master of this tool. In the 2010 SkyScan Micro CT Meeting he was honored with the Best Image award.
SkyScan Micro-CTs and other x-ray microtomography systems work by first shining a beam of x-rays onto a specimen. The different patterns of these rays scattering or being re-emitted can then be interpreted by a computer. The specimen, which is whole (i.e. not sliced open), is rotated about to gain information from multiple angles. Specialized software can then use this information to create high resolution images of cross sections within a specimen. Perhaps the most widely recognized form of x-ray tomography is the kind of medical x-rays referred to as Computed Axial Tomography, also known as “CAT scans” or “CT scans.”
Aside from medical applications, microtomography has helped researchers answer questions relating to other organisms. For instance, Professor Alba Tercedor’s work with microtomography revealed independently evolved mechanisms for the retention of heat in different species of dung beetles. Such an evolutionary adaptation elucidates an important driver in the speciation and ecology of such beetles because of how they have evolved to fit into different thermal niches. In addition, the professor’s work has also helped to illuminate the structural function of the small needles (spicules) found inside some varieties of sea slugs.
In an interview with BBC Mundo, Professor Alba-Tercedor enthusiastically spoke of the potential of x-ray microtomography technology. He described the experience of exploring an organism’s insides as being like entering a cathedral and moving freely from one room to the next. Furthermore, individual images or film compilations reflect the reality of an organism’s internal structure—making them far more authentic than the approximate digital drawings they may at first appear to be. The only thing artificial about the construction of these images is the addition of color, which a researcher can control and assign to structures of different densities found within an organism. This assignment of densities helps to clearly delineate the structures present on a given image, as well as conferring a fluorescent beauty. Finally, microtomography also has great educational potential. Professor Alba-Tercedor described the technique as a fantastic new way for budding scientists to learn about the internal structures of delicate organisms.
By Sarah Takushi