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What lies beneath

We can now explore the mysterious insides of ancient fossils and the human body without leaving a mark, thanks to software developed at NCI, writes LUCY GUEST.

In a dark room flooded with black water in Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art stands a central dais with two cabinets that glow from within. On the left lies the mummy of Pausiris, dating to 100BC. On the right, an animation peels away the casket and wrappings, revealing the skeleton of the man who lies within.

Thirteen hundred kilometres away at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, 500-million-year-old fossils are on display. Exact replicas of these fossils are standing by to be handled, scrutinised, and even sawn in half to reveal the complex internal structures.

The opportunity to explore in detail what was previously a mystery is made possible by software developed in Vizlab – part of the National Computational Infrastructure – by mathematician- turned-software programmer Dr Ajay Limaye.


Drishti rendering of a scanned ant specimen.

Ten years ago, ANU developed a micro-CT scanner for specimens such as bone, rock, insects – anything that could fit. The only limitation was that a software package capable of processing the large amount of data the machine produced didn’t exist.

In response, Limaye started to write his software, Drishti – a word meaning vision or insight in Sanskrit. The revolutionary  tool is now being used in fields as diverse as oil and gas exploration, dentistry, art and palaeobiology.

“The software allows us to digitally remove the skin from an animal, and then colour each bodily system separately to clearly distinguish, for example, muscle from bone,” says Limaye. “After scanning artifacts that are millions of years old, we can intricately explore the internal components without damaging the original sample.”


Drishti visualisation of an aneurysm in a blood vessel.

The images can be created in real-time, meaning medical conditions can be diagnosed without the need for invasive surgery, geologists can map the internal structure of stone to identify if oil is present, and entomologists can get up close to some of the world’s smallest insects.

Pairing Drishti with a 3D printer takes things to the next level, making it possible for the digital images to become tangible  physical objects, says Limaye.

“Ancient fossils can be colour printed and handled without fear of damage. We scanned the skull of a nine-year-old child and printed the image from the software. Not only were the external features an exact replica, but the internal structures also printed, revealing teeth that were yet to break through gum, the makeup of sinuses, and the fusion lines on the internal walls of the skull.”

Limaye has made sure Drishti users don’t need to learn complex calculations, making it available to research institutions  and museums around the world.

Be it an eerie museum exhibition or diagnosis in the dentist’s chair, Drishti has revealed that there’s always more than meets the eye.

This story originally appeared in ANU Reporter.

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