IU scientists earn ‘BioArt’ award for image of beetle brain on cusp of metamorphosis

Work to be displayed at the National Institutes of Health in early 2017

A stunning image of an insect’s brain and nerve cord captured by three Indiana University scientists will be on display at the National Institutes of Health early next year.

The winning image shows the central nervous system in a species of horned dung beetle.

The winning image shows the central nervous system in a species of horned dung beetle.

Eduardo Zattara, Armin Moczek and Jim Powers of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology are among the winners of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2016 BioArt competition, an annual contest to share the beauty and breadth of biological research.

Zattara is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Moczek, a professor in the department. Powers is an assistant research scientist and manager of the IU Light Microscopy Imaging Center, where the image was generated.

The winning image from IU shows a highly detailed picture of the central nervous system in a species of horned dung beetle, Onthophagus sagittarius. The image was captured close to the insect’s emergence from the pupal to adult stage.

Visible in the image are the beetle’s optic lobes, which are in the process of growing and extending toward the outer surface of the head to form a pair of compound eyes. The colors are the result of different fluorescent labels used to highlight physical structures and chemical processes involved in the transformation. Structural proteins appear in red; serotonin, a neurotransmitter, in green; and genetic material in blue.

The image was captured at the Light Microscopy Imaging Center using an LSM880 laser-scanning confocal microscope from Zeiss Microscopy, one of several highly advanced imaging devices made available to IU scientists during summer 2015. Capturing and rendering the complete 50-gigabyte dataset required over 14 hours and the full processing power of the microscope’s computer, according to Zattara, who had to leave the machine running overnight to get the image.

Although the image is beautiful, Zattara said the “gorgeous dataset” isn’t purely aesthetic. It also played a critical role in the discovery, reported earlier this year, that switching off select head patterning genes in Onthophagus resulted in the loss of the beetles’ horns and appearance of a third eye structure in the center of the head. That study was part of a larger project to investigate the evolution of novel complex traits in Moczek’s lab funded by the National Science Foundation.

“After we got the first preliminary results suggesting the central nervous system could play a role in patterning these strange structures in Onthophagus, I decided to investigate the brain and nerve cord of a developing beetle using immunofluorescence and confocal microscopy, since these technologies allow us to obtain highly detailed three-dimensional images of tiny structures,” Zattara said. “Ultimately, the image helped put us on the right track by showing that the brain did not seem to be the cause for losing horns and gaining a third eye.

Winners included Eduardo Zattara and Armin Moczek. (Jim Powers not pictured.)

Winners included Eduardo Zattara and Armin Moczek. (Not pictured: Jim Powers.)

“This is an image whose creation was driven at least as much by the challenge and fun of trying out a new technology as the collection of data,” he added. “Oftentimes, you don’t really know what an image will look like until you are done acquiring and processing the data. After leaving the microscope running all night, we arrived the next morning to find this huge data file. It took a few more hours for the high-end computer to crunch through the data before we could see the final render. But the wait was totally worthwhile, as the resulting image was crisp, highly detailed and very aesthetically pleasing. It was perfect for a contest like FASEB BioArt, and I’m honored to be named one of this year’s winners.”

The nation’s largest coalition of biomedical researchers, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology represents 30 scientific societies and over 125,000 researchers from around the world. The organization aims to advance health and welfare by promoting progress and education in biological and biomedical sciences through service to member societies and collaborative advocacy.

The IU scientists’ image is one of 10 selected as winners in the 2016 competition. Also credited for their role in the image are Jonathan Cherry and Matthew Curtis of Zeiss Microscopy, which will feature the image in the company’s promotional materials.

The winning entries were unveiled Nov. 23 on the federation’s website. The art exhibit at NIH is expected to go live in late January or early February. The exact date is to be determined.

The original, 50GB dataset is available to researchers. For more information, contact Eduardo Zattara at ezattara@indiana.edu.

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