Giving fossils a new look

Aug 25, 2011 By Ryan Heise
Cindy Wong, Adam Harrison and Dileepan Joseph (right) show off their microscope setup used to capture images of microfossils.

You wouldn’t expect studying fossils to be a part of engineering research, but a team in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is applying computer engineering ingenuity to find a new method for digitizing, studying and sharing microfossil samples.

Professor Dileepan Joseph, PhD candidate Adam Harrison, and master’s of science student Cindy Wong have developed a new way to digitally capture and display microfossils and other specimens, called Virtual Reflected-Light Microscopy.

The process is achieved by capturing a series of digital images of a microfossil through a microscope. Each image is taken with a light source shifted at different points around the sample, which creates different shadows on its surface. This allows the team to extract a three-dimensional map of the sample, which computer software can further interpret. The result is imagery that is on par with viewing a real microfossil sample. Users can control the angle, intensity, and type of light hitting the sample, and can even view it in 3-D using 3-D glasses.

“In the past, researchers might get a few images of a specimen under a few lighting conditions. It would give them the general outline and some other properties, but it was not comparable to actually looking at a specimen,” Harrison said. “What we’re doing is like reverse engineering: using multiple images together to extract the shape of samples. And with that we get important properties such as surface reflectance."

Harrison says this imaging technology could facilitate a massive digital library of samples that can be accessed through a web browser. He says this eliminate the need for researchers to travel to view samples that are stored in large repositories all over the world.

“You can have the best digital representation in the world, but if you can’t share it, it doesn’t matter,” Harrison said.

For her part in the project, Wong developed a Java applet that allows end users to interact with the samples in a simple, intuitive way.

“This is a much closer representation of using an actual microscope,” she said. “It is also a way to share information with a larger audience easily and more cost effectively.”

The method could change the way geoscientists examine the vast quantity of microscopic samples that are collected through projects like the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. These microfossils provide researchers with information that is crucial for climate study, and oil and gas exploration.

“We’re interested in ways of accelerating the identification process,” Joseph said. “This definitely gets us closer to that goal.”

While the team continues to refine their system, they’re also looking at other uses. Because it can record data from any opaque material, Joseph says there is the potential for applications in metallurgic study. The team has also been in contact with the Natural History Museum in London, UK, which is providing samples from its large collection of microfossils.

“There’s huge potential for educating the public with VRLM,” Joseph said. “People respond to its interactive nature.”

Explore further: New hadrosaur noses into spotlight

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Research overturns oldest evidence of life on Earth

Mar 16, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- It appears that the supposed oldest examples of life on our planet -- 3.5 billion-year-old bacteria fossils found in Australian rock called Apex Chert -- are nothing more than tiny gaps in ...

Fern's hunger-busting properties supported by research

Nov 15, 2010

Professor Roger Lentle, from the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health at the Massey University, led a team that studied how an extract of the mamaku fern influenced stomach activity. Maori traditionally ...

The kids are alright

May 26, 2011

Children should be seen and not heard... who says? A Philosophy academic at The University of Nottingham is challenging the adage by teaching primary school children to argue properly.

Recommended for you

New hadrosaur noses into spotlight

Sep 19, 2014

Call it the Jimmy Durante of dinosaurs – a newly discovered hadrosaur with a truly distinctive nasal profile. The new dinosaur, named Rhinorex condrupus by paleontologists from North Carolina State Univer ...

Militants threaten ancient sites in Iraq, Syria

Sep 19, 2014

For more than 5,000 years, numerous civilizations have left their mark on upper Mesopotamia—from Assyrians and Akkadians to Babylonians and Romans. Their ancient, buried cities, palaces and temples packed ...

New branch added to European family tree

Sep 17, 2014

The setting: Europe, about 7,500 years ago. Agriculture was sweeping in from the Near East, bringing early farmers into contact with hunter-gatherers who had already been living in Europe for tens of thousands ...

User comments : 0