3D virtual fish dissection

By using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), American researchers are carrying fish collection into the digital age. This Digital Fish Library will give you the opportunity to virtually dissect some rare fishes from your computer anywhere in the world.

By using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), American researchers are carrying fish collection into the digital age. This Digital Fish Library, which will take five years to complete and is supported by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), will allow scientists to look inside the inner workings of fish without destroying precious specimens. But it also will give you the opportunity to virtually dissect some rare fishes from your computer anywhere in the world.

Here is the introduction of the NSF news release.

The same medical technology used to image brain tumors and torn knee ligaments is now taking the field of marine biology to a new dimension: anyone with Internet access will be able to look at fish as never before.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded researchers at the University of California at San Diego's (UCSD) Keck Center for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography a grant to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to create a high-resolution, 3-dimensional, online catalog of fishes.

Before going further, below are two examples of pictures of fish using this technology. The first one is an Island kelpfish (Alloclinus holderi) (Credit: MRI and 3D by UCSD Keck Center for fMRI; CT data from MRI and 3D by UCSD Keck Center for fMRI; CT data from Digimorph at the University of Texas at Austin).

Island kelpfish via fMRI

And this other one shows a Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis) (Credit: UCSD Keck Center for fMRI).

Galapagos shark via fMRI

You can see larger versions of these pictures on this page at NSF.

But what motivated the researchers and the NSF to start such a program?

The plan is to image the internal anatomies of the entire range of fishes, said [Scripps Marine Vertebrate Collection curator Philip] Hastings. "Capturing the variation across all fishes will open the door to a range of interesting questions about how species differ. You can imagine comparing the brain of a coral-reef fish that relies on vision with one from the deep sea that relies mainly on smell, or comparing the muscles of deep-sea fishes that regularly migrate to the surface with those that stay in the deep."
"Fish come in a variety of odd shapes, so we have to develop new hardware to image them," said [UCSD School of Medicine's Lawrence] Frank. "Engineers at the center are building special coils for fish. We are also working on new ways of collecting data, because fish tissue can be very different from the tissues we typically image. By tailoring the technology, we will further optimize our use of MRI, whether we're imaging cardiac muscle, brain tissue, cartilage or fish."

And what will get the general public from this project?

The technology will enable researchers to acquire and process high-resolution data of various fish anatomies that can be placed on the Internet. Using this powerful and versatile imaging tool, scientists, students and anyone in the public will be able to digitally probe and dissect these fishes from a desktop computer anywhere in the world.
"By creating the Digital Fish Library, we're developing a tool that stimulates students to think independently and naturally leads them into questions they might want to investigate," Frank said. "We hope to design an educational model that spurs students' interests and teaches them how to conduct research. It's not just teaching them about fish anatomy or physiology; it's teaching them about magnetic resonance imaging, computation and visualization."

For more information about this project, please check the Digital Fish Library web site where you'll find additional details about the Mr. Fish application software and look at some fish in their digital collection.

Sources: National Science Foundation news release, via EurekAlert!, March 18, 2006; and various web sites

You'll find related stories by following the links below.