ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke explains why insect scanning could be key to understanding the planet’s biodiversity
There are more threats to the planet’s biodiversity than ever before.
Still, it is difficult to understand the threat because there is so much biodiversity – there are a million described species of insects alone.
We have come to a research facility in Oxfordshire called Diamond that is working with the Natural History Museum in London to shed new light on the planet’s biodiversity.
“If we really want to understand which factors shape biodiversity on this planet, we really have to understand insects,” says Professor Anjali Goswami, paleobiologist at the NHM.
“If we don’t, we’ll probably be missing out on the whole puzzle, frankly.”
And when they say light, they mean a lot about it.
Diamond is a machine called a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that hurls electrons around half a kilometer long ring until they reach the speed of light.
This energy is then used to create an X-ray beam that is 10 billion times brighter than the sun.
Properly handled, these x-rays can be used to image insects in ways that have never been seen before. And, what is decisive for the challenge of biodiversity, in an unprecedented number.
In the laboratory where we are filming, they focus the X-ray beam on a tiny beetle that is only 3 mm long.
Moments later, a ringtone sounds, we are asked to leave the laboratory, and a door made of several centimeters of solid lead slams behind us.
The X-ray is used to create an ultra-high resolution scan of the entire insect. Like a CT scan, it is a 3D image of the entire animal including its internal organs.
When the project started, they could only image 15 or 20 samples in a day as each sample was taking a long time to set up and leave the lab to avoid the intense radiation of the X-ray beam.
But they have now installed a robotic arm that can load the insects into the machine for them – so they can process up to 1,000 insects in a day.
That’s fast enough to dent the 30 million insects that are kept in long rows of cupboards in the London museum.
And enough to learn new things about what this vast collection of insects can tell us about the biodiversity that would take scientists decades to work out.
A huge collection of 3D images of insects can reveal new patterns, trends, or combinations of traits that could explain not only why insects are so diverse, but also how vulnerable they could be to things like climate change.
Prof. Goswami calls it a “mega-data” approach to the study of biology.
“We can break down each species into its actual complexity instead of trying to simplify it down to something that we can analyze with current computing power.”