Environment & Natural History


Computed Tomography to infer development in microfossils

Planktonic foraminifera are single-celled organisms that live in vast numbers in all the world’s oceans. While chemical analysis of their fossil remains has generated a remarkably continuous record of past climate change, each individual also retains a complete record of its size and shape at each stage along its journey through life. These growth stages can be revealed by state-of-the-art imaging technology, which has sparked a digital revolution in how biologists study life on Earth. The emergence of new species is fundamental to biodiversity and controlled by the link between environmental cues and organismal responses during life, but the contrasting temporal and biological scales involved create major problems for empirical study.

Role of Computed Tomography
The micro-CT capabilities at µ-VIS can produce high resolution 3-dimensional data of the internal structure of each organism, which allows scientists to reconstruct the dynamic life course from the static death of the fossil record. The micro-CT data have been employed to generate growth curves of plankton who lived millions of years ago, showing how they aged and responded to environmental change. This tool has been key to increase the understanding of the how individual growth influences population dynamics, and has profound implications for how variation among individuals generates variation among species.

This project was supported by NERC Fellowship NE/J018163/1.