About two years ago, using a phase-enhanced imaging technique, Lee placed a dead ant in the path of the x-ray beam and was amazed to see incredibly detailed images of the ant's internal organs. He searched the Internet for a biologist who might be interested, and he and Field Museum scientists have been working together ever since.
One aspect of the technique that makes the videos so revealing is edge enhancement, which highlights the edges of some internal organs. This effect is due to the special properties of the x-ray beams at synchrotron facilities, such as the Advanced Photon Source. "It's almost as if parts of the anatomy have been outlined in pencil, like a drawing in a coloring book," Lee explains.
This work opens up the possibility of developing a powerful new technique for studying how living animals function, he adds.
Indeed, Westneat, Lee and their coauthors are already aiming the synchrotron at the jaws of insects to see how they chew. "Most of the twelve moving parts in an insect's jaw mechanism are internal, so our inability to see inside living, moving insects has prevented us from understanding how these parts work together," Westneat says.
Down the road, Westneat envisions using synchrotron x-ray videos to study a wide variety of animal functions, biomechanics and movements. New discoveries about animal function can have broad implications. For example, active tracheal breathing in the head and thorax among insects may have played an important role in the evolution of terrestrial locomotion and flight in insects, and be a prerequisite for oxygen delivery to complex sensory systems and the brain, the authors say.
This would not only help scientists learn more about the animals studied but also provide insights on human health. F
Contact: Greg Borzo