Across the globe, a mysterious epidemic is attacking the frog population, causing malformation and population decline. Though the exact cause is unknown, many scientists believe environmental components are to blame. Anne Maglia, biology professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, is hoping to help stop this epidemic. “These guys have been around for millions and millions of years,” she observes, “and when we see them starting to decline, we have some pretty good ideas that the environment itself is in bad shape.”
Maglia explains that there is no single cause for this phenomenon, but that it is likely the result of several factors: “We know a lot of it has to do with the fungus called chytrid [Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis].” Chytrid is a naturally occurring fungus found in the soil that, according to Maglia, has infected part of the frog population. She also associates UV radiation, habitat loss, and environmental chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, as factors contributing to the frogs’ decline.
Frustrated with arduous dissections during her postdoctoral training, Maglia decided that it was time to change how morphology and frog development are studied. She recalls thinking that “the questions are so immediate—this thing about the declining frogs—that they are going to die before we study them if we don’t come up with a better way.” Maglia and fellow Missouri S&T collaborator, Jennifer Leopold, decided to create a computer program and web library that allow researchers to study three-dimensional reconstructions of anatomy as if they were actual biological objects. “We wanted to apply it to this problem,” she says, “and make the technology available for other anatomists to use.”
The UMRB grant that Maglia received made it possible for the team to develop what she describes as “a digital library of three-dimensional reconstructions of anatomy called “MorphologyNet” [http://morphologynet.org/]. She emphasizes that the UMRB funding has subsequently helped change the paradigms of science, not just for her personal research program but also for studies of anatomy and development much more widely.
Using micro-CT [computed tomography] technology, Maglia is now able to turn specimens into three-dimensional reconstructions that anyone can access on the MorphologyNet website. She adds that this facility also allows other scientists to contribute their own three-dimensional reconstructions that are then shared worldwide. “I just worked yesterday with a researcher from Germany who was looking at very rare amphibians,” she notes, “and he is making three-dimensional reconstructions that he can put up on the website so that other people can study them.”
“This site lets us study the anatomy in ways that are totally different from what we have been doing before,” remarks Maglia. Scientists can now virtually dissect specimens in a far more efficient manner, while also being able to study internal and small structures that previously have eluded examination. Describing how virtual dissection works, she offers an intriguing example: “Say we wanted to get rid of the muscles; we can make them go away. We can also make the muscles transparent if we want to see how they fit in with other structures, and of course we can also change the colors of structures if we want to make them easier to view.”
In classes on developmental biology, comparative anatomy, and bioinformatics, Maglia uses her research experience as a teaching tool for her students. “In each of these different courses,” she explains, “we actually use some of the three-dimensional reconstructions.” Calling it a “seamless integration” of her research with her teaching, she likes to involve undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows within her research program. “They do all aspects of research,” she says, “from studying the specimens and dissecting them, to slicing them up, to doing histology and making the 3-D reconstruction.”
A passionate individual, Professor Anne Maglia is changing the paradigms of science in search of a better tomorrow. “We’ve got about ten million species on the planet that we haven’t even identified,” she stresses, “and about a fifth of them, maybe a third of them, are going extinct right now.” By creating and developing MorphologyNet, she hopes that "we can solve our problems before we don’t have a problem to solve.”