The challenge

Observing tiny insects

We can learn much about the universe and how it works just by looking at it.

One example of this is phenotyping - the manual process of observing an organism's characteristics using the human eye.

But insects are often miniscule, so their size and structure can be difficult and time consuming  to measure accurately via phenotyping - even under magnification.

Our response

Exploring 3D imaging solutions

Imaging offers a way to automate parts of the phenotyping process.

Using imaging, an organism’s characteristics can be measured quickly and with less variation between measurements than when using manual methods.

[Music plays and text appears: Insect collections going 3D]

[Black and white footage of different insects appear on screen]

Narrator: Insects represent more than half of all known living organisms, with more than a million species having been described. CSIRO has been collecting and recording Australian insects since the late 1920s.

[Image changes to show black and white footage of a CSIRO building]

[Image changes to show black and white footage of a scientist studying insect specimens and changes back to colour footage of different insects]

Narrator 2: Australia’s insects are among the most diverse and least known in the world.

[Image changes to show a tractor with sprayer being used on a crop]

To farmers and others whose livelihoods depend upon the proper management of plants, animals, and soils, insects and the control of them are major factors in their daily operation.

[Image changes to show cattle being worked in yards]

[Camera pans over different preserved insect specimens]

Narrator: The Australian National Insect Collection is the preeminent collection of Australian insects, maintained by CSIRO for researchers, industry and government agencies.

[Image changes to show Dr Beth Mantle, Collection Manager Australian National Insect Collection]

Dr. Beth Mantle: We have a collection of insects here because they provide a physical record of Australian biodiversity that has enduring value. We can come back to it time and time again to check and confirm our research and understanding.

[Image changes to show Dr. John La Salle, Director Atlas of Living Australia]

Dr. John La Salle: We have to understand insects because they’re key components to our ecosystems. If we don’t understand how they’re helping to manage ecosystems and keep ecosystems functioning, then we can’t maintain ecosystems into the future.

[Image changes to show a digital camera rig, photographing an insect mounted on a pin. Images of the insect appear on a computer monitor]

We’re trying to convert the study of insects into the digital world and make it easier for people to have access to the information they need for informed decisions.

[Image changes to show Dr. Chuong Nguyen, Computational Informatics, using the digital camera rig]

Narrator: And CSIRO is developing a technique to produce high quality 3D digital models of insects to bring these assets into this realm.

Dr. Chuong Nguyen: They rig consists of three components, two access turntable, macro rail, and a camera with macro ring flash attached to it. For a small insect like this we have to capture multi focus images at different depths and combine them into a single image with the weevil in focus, so that it can be used for 3D reconstruction. That also means that we have to capture multiple focus images at multiple views, at least to 4,500 images for this small wheat weevil.

[Image changes to show a computer screen display reproduction of insects in three dimensions and flashes through different menus and screens]

Software is loading individual images, and extracts information from the pattern at the same time to estimate the camera angle. Looking at each spike here, or box here, represents the location where an image is captured and then we can zoom in and see what it looks like. Once we got this data we can export it to different formats, for such as html, x3d, all those common 3D formats.

[Image changes to three-dimensional model of weevil rotating on computer screen]

People have been doing something similar like this for some time, but no one has ever come close at this stage to achieve the highest possible quality.

[Image shows different angles of the camera rig and insect being photographed]

[Image changes to show Dr. David Lovell, Computational Informatics]

Dr. David Lovell: Once you take a physical specimen into the digital domain it becomes accessible, available and able to be analysed in new and different ways.

[Image changes to show a computer screen with an image of a three-dimensional model of an insect rotating]

[Image changes back to Dr. David Lovell]

We need to use technology so we can understand nature fast enough that we can do something about the impacts that human beings are having on it.

[Image changes to show a computer screen with an image of a three-dimensional model of an insect rotating]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Beth Mantle]

Dr. Beth Mantle: Having 3D models of insects is going to open up the collection to users who can’t physically access the collection, and it also protects the integrity of the specimens we have here.

[Camera pans over collection of insect specimens]

[Image has changed back to Dr. John La Salle]

Dr. John La Salle: The Atlas of Living Australia is a national initiative for sharing biodiversity information through the web.

[Image changes to show a 3D insect on a computer screen]

These 3D models will add a new dimension to the Atlas of Living Australia. We will use them to inform quarantine, pest management, biodiversity research, and just people wanting to know more about what lives around them.

[Image has changed back to Dr. David Lovell]

Dr. David Lovell: We need to accelerate the rate at which we can understand the natural world in which we live.

[Image has changed back to Dr. John La Salle]

Dr. John La Salle: Our goal is that our great grandchildren will enjoy the same Australia that we do today.

[Image changes to show a three-dimensional rotating insect]

[Credits: This project is a collaboration between: CSIRO Computational Informatics. The Australian National Insect Collection. The Atlas of Living Australia, supported by CSIRO’s Transformational Biology Initiative’]

[CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here]

Insect collections go 3D

3D images also allow specimens to be viewed from all angles.

While x-ray computer tomography (CT) is an effective imaging technology, it can only produce images in black and white. Meanwhile, other 3D capture systems struggle with small, detailed specimens.

This led us to explore and develop a new, cost-effective way for researchers to easily see minute details on micro-sized insects in full colour, 3D and high-definition.

The results

Cost-effective, simple and quick

We've demonstrated what we believe to be the world's first system for capturing 3D models of tiny (3-30 mm) specimens in natural colour.

It's a cost-effective system that allows specimens to be more readily shared, analysed, annotated and compared.

The images produced are around 10 megabytes in size, enabling them to be viewed in a modern web browser with no additional software.

This technology will help the scientific and educational community learn more about insects and their impact on the environment.

It will assist in protecting Australia's natural environment, its multi-billion dollar agricultural industries and the health of its population against the threat of invasive insect species and the diseases that they carry.

It will also open up the possibilities of using 3D image libraries to quickly extract, analyse and share rich information to:

  • support biodiversity discovery
  • species identification
  • quarantine control
  • unlocking the value of biological collections around the world.

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