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Powerful X-ray beams at Argonne, new electronic flight simulator

Watching flies fly may not seem like high-tech science, but for researchers using the Western Hemisphere's most brilliant X-rays, located at the Advanced Photon Source at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, it not only helps explain how insects fly but also may someday aid in understanding human heart function.

The researchers, from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Caltech, and the University of Vermont, merged two distinct technologies, intense x-ray beams and electronic flight simulators, to study how insect muscles generate such extraordinary levels of power. The results are published in the British journal Nature today.

Lead researcher Tom Irving of IIT said that the research has widespread implications. "Flying insects are among the most successful species in the animal kingdom. The ways in which the wing muscles in these insects generate enough power for flight is not completely understood. Insect muscles differ from animal muscles in that they do not need a nerve impulse for every contraction but instead are activated by stretch. The means by which these 'stretch-activated muscles' are turned on and off at high speed (one wing beat takes 5/1000th of a second) has been a mystery."

The team used extremely bright beams of X-rays at the BioCAT facility (a NIH- supported research center developed by IIT) at the APS and a "virtual-reality flight simulator" for flies (designed by collaborator Michael Dickinson of Caltech) to probe to the muscles in a flying fruit fly. The intense X-rays are necessary to resolve the changes in the crystal-like configuration of molecules responsible for generating the rapid contractions of the muscle with a resolution of 6/10,0000th of a second. The flight simulator, which fools a tethered fly into "thinking" it is flying freely through the air, is necessary to produce a stable pattern of wing motion and enabled the researchers to capture X-ray images at different stages of
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Contact: Catherine Foster
cfoster@anl.gov
630-252-5580
DOE/Argonne National Laboratory
19-Jan-2005


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