July 1, 2005 Frog biology is especially noteworthy because of the amphibians' sensitivity to pollution, which often flags previously unknown environmental problems. Science labs and classrooms around the world can now get inside frogs, slice them up, and rotate 3D images of their organs on MorphologyNet.org, a new online resource produced by a biologist and a computer scientist. The Web site also contains models of fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. Researchers will be able to share images across continents and limit the samples of endangered species that are destroyed in the research process.
ROLLA, Mo. -- Frogs are some of the oldest living creatures and they could provide the first clues on changes in our environment that could impact us. Today scientists are getting the inside facts from frogs.
Frogs. They're the line of defense to tell us what happens when something is wrong in the environment. And according to biologist Anne Maglia, chemicals in the water may have something to do with the developmental problems that breed frogs with multiple limbs or facial deformities.
"It's really important to people because a lot of this water ends up being part of the drinking water supply," Maglia, from the University of Missouri-Rolla, tells DBIS. And that is the reason Maglia has dedicated her life to learning about frogs and now she is helping the world learn about them too.
Joining forces with computer scientist Jennifer Leopold, Maglia created a Web site that lets students to get inside amphibians. The site also allows scientists to share their research with experts around the world. This high-tech tool could help scientists identify local environmental problems sooner.
But there's nothing hi-tech to how the research starts. Maglia says, "We can take a frog, cut it into about 2,000 slices." Computer software then uses mathematics to piece the slices together like a puzzle, creating an animation. You can take the frog apart, highlight areas, shadow them, and even go inside them.
"We're building now, essentially, a virtual museum of 3-D reconstructions of anatomy," Maglia says. The information can be dissected for generations to come, and through each frog, we'll find out a little bit more about ourselves.
MorphologyNet.org is not just for frogs. You can also check out reptiles, fish, birds and mammals.
ADVANTAGES: Computerized 3D reconstructions are not new, but most either focus only on humans, show only bone structure, or donýt allow the user to interact with the sample or customize it to his or her specific needs. MorphologyNet enables the user not just to study a 3D representation of a frog, for example, but also to remove each layer entirely, dissecting the image as he or she would a real frog in a biology laboratory. Users can slice the image into as many layers as they like, and even rotate it 360 degrees in any direction, using any form of Web browser. One day the site could allow researchers to determine the effects of pesticides on declining amphibian populations.
WHAT CAUSES DEFORMITIES IN FROGS: In a given population, if 5 percent or fewer of frogs have malformations, that is natural, but there are populations where 70 percent show deformities. Researchers are trying to understand what outside source is causing the frogs to develop abnormally, resulting in diminishing populations around the world. Among the factors that have been studied are climate changes, such as global warming and the thinning of the ozone layer, which can result in overexposure to ultraviolet radiation. Habitat destruction is also a factor, as is pollution: frogs absorb water directly through their skin, so they are vulnerable to water pollutants like pesticides and acid rain.
WHAT IS BIOINFORMATICS: Bioinformatics is the field of science in which biology, computer science and information technology merge into a single discipline. The major advances in molecular biology and genomics have resulted in an explosive growth in biological information. Bioinformatics was born of the need for computerized databases to store, organize, index, and analyze the data.
FROG OR TOAD: Technically speaking, frogs and toads the same. The name "toad" is generally given to those with dry, warty skin and short hind legs for walking instead of jumping. Those with smooth moist skin and strong webbed hind legs for swimming and jumping are typically described as "frogs." Frogs usually live in moist climates and lay their eggs in clusters, while toads live in drier climates and lay their eggs in long chains. But there's not a clear-cut distinction: many species fit equally well into both categories.
ON THE WEB: Visit MorphologyNet.org