Fall 2004 Table of Contents
News from the College
Using the Microscope to Create Art

A microscopic view of two fish scales. The scales in the image on the top have a predictable, rhythmic pattern; on the bottom, a chaotic and disturbed pattern. The two fish are the same species, except that the latter lived in a lake polluted by fallout from Chernobyl.

Dr. Timothy G. Bromage, an NYU College of Dentistry Adjunct Professor of Biomaterials and Biomimetics and of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology, is proud of the attention he pays to the aesthetics and emotion of scientific imaging. His exhibit, “Óseos Cosmos” (roughly translated as the “Skeletal Cosmos”), opens in Greece this November on the first leg of a planned world tour. A highlight is a side-by-side display of two of the world’s largest micrographs — each nine feet by nine feet — showing images of a fish scale. In one image, the scales, have a predictable, rhythmic pattern; in the other, the pattern is chaotic and disturbed. The two fish are the same species, except that the latter lived in a lake polluted by fallout from Chernobyl.

Dr. Bromage uses microscopes to analyze hard tissue patterns occurring in bones, teeth, fish scales, and other structures for clues about an organism’s life history. Analyzing hard tissue to solve the mysteries of skeletal development was once a struggle, but with digital imaging, researchers today can creatively alter colors to highlight miniscule but important features or apply computer formulas (algorithms) to calculate the tissue’s growth rate. By employing artistic principles as they manipulate color and structure, researchers create images startling in their beauty as well as scientifically important.

A microscopic view of the tooth surface of a southern African zebra (Equus burchelli). Black represents holes in the surface, yellow is the densest part of the tooth, and blue is the least dense section. The number of holes and the proportion of yellow to blue may characterize certain species and relate to their feeding habits. Information obtained from the analysis of such imaging is expected to highlight the effects of environmental change, disease, and possibly the stresses related to living in protected game reserves (e.g., overcrowding and tourism). The results are also expected to be useful for environmental reconstruction of sites of importance to ancient human life.

Researchers developing new treatments for bone disorders would like to better understand how human collagen grows. This view of a human femur (thigh) bone, which was re-created with three-dimensional imaging software, represents one of the first attempts to chart typical collagen growth patterns in 3D. The red and yellow areas represent collagen that grows parallel to the bone surface, while the blues and greens show collagen that grows from the surface down. Different growth patterns affect the bone’s mechanical competence.

Food for thought: To examine how fish could become a renewable food source for astronauts, Dr. Tim Bromage generated this microscopic view of the scale of a fish that spent time on the space shuttle. This image suggests that the fish adapted well to gravity changes: The growth of the scale, as illustrated by the lines radiating from its center, follows an orderly pattern, indicating that the scale continued to grow normally while in space.

How does microgravity affect bone development in astronauts? Dr. Tim Bromage seeks to answer this question by observing changes to the bone of a growing rat that spent time on the space shuttle Columbia. He concludes that bone loss progresses with each day that astronauts are in outer space. This image, created with the help of special image-processing software, is the first known illustration of microgravity's day-to-day effect on bone, with each horizontal line representing incremental changes to the bone over a 24-hour period. The period between the large central and upper thin blue horizontal bands represents the time that the rat spent in space and experienced bone loss. The area immediately above the upper blue horizontal band marks the day that the bone loss reversed itself and the bone increased, when the rat returned from outer space.