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Researchers take museums online with medical imaging technology

A microCT scan showing the skulls and vasculature of the Japanese common toad, Bufo japonicus.
Helen Plylar
Utah State University
A microCT scan showing the skulls and vasculature of the Japanese common toad, Bufo japonicus.

Professor Dave Blackburn is the curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

He oversees more than 200,000 specimens. Imagine rooms filled with countless small creatures in jars of alcohol, numerous boxes of skeletons, and even tanks that hold giant snakes and crocodiles.

“Part of my interest is in making those objects used even more broadly. So increasing their reach," said Blackburn.

Blackburn and his team use imaging techniques, such as CT scans and light-based scanning, to take pictures of both the inside and the outside of animals. Using a computer algorithm these 2-dimensional pictures are rendered into a realistic, 3D representation. These models are then uploaded to the internet where they’re accessible to anyone.

“School kids on the other side of the country, or artists on the other side of the world, can actually use this material as part of whatever they're trying to do. For use in art or museum exhibits, or you know, teachers that are trying to teach some concept in class. So having these 3D models that we can share digitally, really just explodes the impact that we can have on the world and that these specimens can have," said Blackburn.

USU researchers recently procured funding from the National Science Foundation for a microCT scanner, much like the one Blackburn uses, that will be installed next month. Helen Bond Plylar a PhD candidate in the Biology department, said she will be using this equipment to study the heat-sensing pit organs of snakes.

“Yeah, so a large percentage of my dissertation research, really hinges on access to the scanner. For me personally and for my work, it's going to allow me to examine differences in the innervation and blood supply to the pit organs of boas and pythons. The scanner is going to allow me to look at whole intact animals and provide a really clear picture of what's going on internally without having to destroy the specimen,” said Plylar.

In addition to being able to visualize the inside of specimens, researchers at USU can now join Blackburn in making their discoveries accessible to the broader public.

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. His research revolves around an underexplored protein receptor, called GPR171, and its possible use as a pharmacological target for pain. He reports on opioids, outer space and Great Salt Lake. He loves Utah and its many stories.