A biologist and a computer scientist at the University of Missouri-Rolla have joined forces to create an online tool to better understand why amphibian populations are on the decline. The website, called MorphologyNet, houses 3-D images of frogs that can be dissected by any computer user with any web browser.
Eventually, the site could allow researchers to determine the effects of pesticides on declining amphibian populations.
But the site is planned as a global depository for 3-D images of all kinds of animal anatomy, not just frogs. Using MorphologyNet, researchers will be able to share images across continents, effectively limiting the samples of endangered species that are destroyed in the research process. More importantly, the site will enable biologists to take a closer, more precise look at what they’re studying.
Through MorphologyNet, researchers, students and teachers interested in studying frog biology, for example, will be able to sit at their computers, look at a three-dimensional representation of an actual frog, customize the color and texture of each biological component the skull, jaw bone, jaw muscle, tongue, etc. then proceed to virtually dissect the frog.
Users will be able to remove each layer entirely or make it transparent and view everything behind it, just as they would with a real frog in biology lab. They will be able to slice the image in as many layers as are imaginable, in any direction. With another click of the mouse, they will be able to rotate the image 360 degrees in any direction.
MorphologyNet was built by Dr. Anne Maglia, assistant professor of biological science, and Dr. Jennifer Leopold, assistant professor of computer science.
Maglia studies frogs specifically, the decline in their populations and the malformations that show up in frog development. Leopold builds databases. Together, their work is a defining example of bioinformatics researchers solving biological problems using computational methods.
The project started as a tool to help Maglia study her young developing frogs, which are small enough to fit comfortably on the face of a quarter, legs and all. In particular, Maglia spends a great deal of her time studying frog facial anatomy, which can only be seen under a microscope.
"Hours of trying to look at tiny things," Leopold says, is what brought Maglia to her with the idea for MorphologyNet.
"We’re not the first people on the planet to do 3-D reconstructions," Maglia says, but the others either focus only on humans, show only bone structure or don’t allow for interaction or customization. "None of the ones out there did what I wanted to do: have a big object I could dissect and customize." She told Leopold what she wanted, and the project was born.
"Computer scientists are trained to go understand what their customers want," Leopold explains. "In this case, we see the biologists as the customers." She and her students spent time in the field with the biologists as they studied the environment and caught frogs, noting the types of data they collected and how it could best be housed in a database.
Leopold clearly appreciates the need for the research. "Frogs are like the canaries in the coal mine," she explains. "They show the first sign of something wrong. Frogs swim in water; we drink water." By studying effects of chemicals on the frogs, biologists may be able to keep these side effects from showing up in humans.
Using MorphologyNet, Maglia can easily study a frog’s normal tissue development, then compare it to the mutated tissue.
"We have a couple of common deformities we’re seeing now," Maglia says. One is a deformity of the legs. "Sometimes we’ll have frogs with legs coming out of the wrong place the middle of the abdomen, for example. Sometimes there are double legs or triple legs, or frogs missing legs entirely, lots of nasty things." In a given population, if 5 percent or fewer of the frogs have malformations, researchers consider that to be natural, but there are populations where 70 percent show deformities. In these cases an outside source is causing the frogs to develop abnormally and it’s Maglia’s goal to find it.