Visualisations merge art and science to reveal details of larval growth
Artist Erica Seccombe, a PhD student and lecturer at The Australian National University School of Art, is combining time resolved micro-CT scans and the NCI-developed high performance visualisation software Drishti in her artistic work. She has been imaging the germination of mung beans for her PhD, and recently has looked at the growth of fly larvae as part of her research practice bringing the natural world to life in immersive video installations. Seeing plants and insects change over time using 4D micro-computed X-ray tomography is new to both science and art.
Supported by an artsACT grant, Seccombe recently undertook a research residency in London at the Natural History Museum’s Imaging and Analysis Centre where Drishti is considered an essential visualisation tool. There she collaborated with scientists who use micro-CT technology to produce high resolution three dimensional models of fly larvae in various degrees of development. Seccombe used Drishti to visualise a sequence of these volumetric datasets to reveal the development of a single larva inside the pupal case. The resulting animation provides a highly detailed view of the internal and external structures of the pupa as it transforms into a fly.
Seccombe’s aim as an artist is to elicit a sense of wonder in the invisible processes of the natural world, by showing the everyday things we never see. Contrasted to the sublime grandeur of landscapes and animals we tend to be shown in videos about life on Earth, these visualisations reveal the small and intricate details that occur in life around us all the time.
Seccombe says “These visualisations provide a different view of the world, more mundane but more remarkable for that very reason. There’s wonder that comes from seeing a plant or a fly grow. When we watch these videos, we become spectators to a previously unseen everyday reality.”
Capturing images of fly larvae in the first few days of their growth inside the egg, and then slowing them down into a time-lapse video has scientific as well as artistic benefits. Researchers have been able to learn more about exactly when certain physical features appear in the larvae, particularly in the very first stages of the larvae development as the structure of the insect begins to take shape. This has important implications for forensic scientists who use larvae growth to accurately determine the time of death in decomposing bodies.
The Drishti software that makes the visualisations possible has been in development at NCI since 2009. Over time it has become easier to use and much more powerful, turning tasks that used to take hours into tasks that take minutes. This means that a lot of people are now able to turn their CT images into visualisations. Seccombe, who started using Drishti early in its development, says that “Drishti makes micro-CT technology much more attractive to a wider field of researchers. The software makes it possible to really benefit from having 3D data, as it enables the user to reveal complex observations and, just as importantly, visually communicate these findings to a broader audience.”
Addendum: Dr Erica Seccombe was awarded the 2018 Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize for this incredible visualisation.
In the unanimous view of the judging panel, Seccombe profoundly captured the spirit of the prize with a work that took as its foundation the ordinarily unseen intersection between science and art. Metamorphosis represents a deep collaboration between scientific and aesthetic enquiry, with the tools of one being instrumental to the realisation of the other. While at one level the video documents the metamorphosis of a pupating fly, from maggot to fully formed insect, at another it works to enlarge our understanding of the mysterious cycles of life itself.
Erica Seccombe, Metamorphosis of a fly pupa,
detail from 4D Micro-CT animation rendered in Drishti
Bluebottle fly Calliphora vicina, one of the most widely used forensic indicators as it is able to detect and colonise a cadaver just minutes after death.
Pupa development at 15 degrees Celsius from 10 – 100 percent. Excerpt of movie here https://vimeo.com/171257402
Imaging and Analysis Centre (IAC), NHM, London
Dr Farah Ahmed, IAC & Dr Daniel Martin-Vega,DLS , NHM, London
Dr Jill Middleton ANU Department of Applied Mathematics, Canberra
Dr Ajay Limaye, ANU VizLab, National Computational Infrastructure, Canberra