IU Scientists Win Prize For 3-D Dung Beetle Image

Dec 8, 2016

Credit Eduardo Zattara/Armin Moczek/Jim Powers/Jonathan Cherry/Matthew Curtis / Indiana University

Biologists studying dung beetles at Indiana University have won an award celebrating a 3-D image illustrating their work.

The researchers' winning picture displays the metamorphosis of an adolescent beetle’s nervous system.

Three scientists were behind the colorful, award-winning image, which last month was declared a winner in the Federation for American Societies for Experimental Biology’s BioArt competition.

Armin Moczek is one of the scientists behind the image. He says dung beetles are fascinating, because the animals’ nervous systems evolve so dramatically throughout their life span. A regular nervous system of “mini-brains” throughout the beetle’s body can fuse together as the insect ages. The image illustrates one such fusion, below the insect’s mouth.

Moczek says the image was the result of a happy coincidence. A microscope company was hoping to sell IU a high-powered instrument, and left the tool for a few days to be demoed by scientists. Eduardo Zattara, a researcher in Moczek’s lab, used the tool for 14 hours to complete their photo.

Usually the scientists work with flat slivers of brain, so the 3-D picture was worth the wait. The tool takes hundreds of flat images that are stacked on top of each other, creating a three-dimensional image.

To the naked eye, the bug's brain is hardly visible. The entire beetle is the size of a coffee bean, and Moczek says the brain is “the size of a glass-headed pin, if you cut it into four pieces.” Moczek says even underneath a regular light microscope, it isn’t much to look at—“like a piece of dried snot, actually,” he says. But he says that’s one of the reasons the final image is so beautiful—it shows the hidden beauty in scientific research.

"The aesthetic or artistic pleasure one gets out of this kind work synergizes with the seriousness of scientific endeavors,” Moczek says. “They both inform each other.”

When asked if lauding the beauty of science takes away from its seriousness, Moczek disagrees.

“There are many aesthetic aspects the work we do,” he says, “but they’ve never detracted from scientific inquiry. If anything, they’ve motivated it even further.”

For example, the colors in the image aren’t just for show—they represent different components of the beetle’s nervous system—DNA is blue and  certain serotonin-detecting antibodies are green.

Assistant research scientist Jim Powers and manager of the IU Light Microscopy Center also helped in creating the final image.

Other winners of the competition include a picture of the New York City skyline grown from colorful yeast colonies.

The winners will have their images displayed at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland next year.