The hi-tech images of insects that could predict how species might be affected by climate change

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke explains why scanning insects could be the key to understanding the planet's biodiversity

There are more threats to the planet’s biodiversity than ever before.

Yet understanding the threat is hard given there’s so much biodiversity out there — there’s a million described species of insects alone.

We’ve come to a research facility in Oxfordshire called Diamond that’s working with the Natural History Museum in London to shed new light on the planet’s biodiversity.

“If we really want to understand what are the factors that shape biodiversity on this planet, we really have to understand insects,” says Professor Anjali Goswami, a paleo biologist at the NHM.

“If we don't, we're probably missing the whole puzzle, quite frankly.”

Raider Ant Credit: Diamond Source Ltd

And when they say light, they mean lots of it.

Diamond is a machine called a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that hurls electrons around a ring half a kilometre long till they nearly reach the speed of light.

That energy is then used to create a beam of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the Sun.

Handled in the right way, those X-rays can be used to image insects in a way that’s never been possible before. And, crucially to the biodiversity challenge, in numbers never possible before. 

In the lab we’re filming in they’re focusing that beam of X-rays on a tiny beetle just 3mm long.

Hairy fungus beetle Credit: Diamond Light Source Ltd

Moments later a klaxon sounds, we’re asked to leave the lab, and door made of several centimetres of solid lead slams shut behind us. 

The X-ray beam is used to produce an ultra-high resolution scan of the entire insect. Like a CT scan, it’s a 3D image of the whole animal including its internal organs.

When the project started they were only able to image a 15 or 20 specimens in a day, due to the time taken to set up each specimen and leave the lab to avoid the intense radiation created by the X-ray beam.

But they’ve now included a robotic arm that can load the insects into the machine for them — allowing them to process up to a 1,000 insects in a day.

That’s fast enough to make a dent in the 30 million insects held in long rows of cabinets at the museum in London.

And enough to learn new things about what this vast collection of insects can tell us about the biodiversity that would take scientists working in the field decades to work out.

A vast collection of 3D images of insects can reveal new patterns, trends or combinations of characteristics that could help explain not just why insects are so diverse, but how vulnerable they might be to things like climate change.

Prof Goswami calls it a “mega-data” approach to studying biology.

“We can break down every species into their actual complexity, as opposed to trying to simplify them down to something that we are able to analyse with the current computational power.”