Biology and anatomy students often encounter animal dissections in their coursework; for many, their first such experience involves dissecting frogs.

A new paper by Royal Veterinary College researchers Dr. Laura Porro and Dr. Christopher Richards published in the Journal of Anatomy uses cutting-edge imaging techniques to produce an exquisitely detailed three-dimensional digital dissection of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis.

Throughout biology and medical science, computed tomography (CT) scanning is used to visualize the skeletons of humans and animals. However, CT scans have a drawback – they cannot distinguished between different soft tissues, such as individual muscles, organs and nerves.

Porro and Richards applied a recently developed method that uses iodine to stain specimens prior to scanning, allowing both bones and soft tissues to be clearly distinguished from each other in CT scans. Imaging software was then used to digitally separate individual bones, muscles, organs and nerves from each other, ultimately producing a highly detailed, full-body 3D model of the frog.

Dr. Porro said: “This technique has been successfully applied to individual body parts – heads, legs and wings – of several animal species. However, this is the first time a “digital dissection” of an entire animal has been produced.”

The resulting model provides fine anatomical detail of the African clawed frog, one of the most important model animals in biology as it is widely used in genetic, medical, neurological and toxicology research. However, applications for the model go far beyond scientific research.

Porro and Richards have made the model available as a 3D PDF that can be downloaded and accessed by anyone using freely available PDF reader software. This allows users to manipulate the frog in 3D space and “digitally dissect” it by making individual muscles, organs and bones appear or disappear. “This holds enormous potential for education and outreach, as students of all ages around the world can now access the model,” said Porro. “It will be especially valuable for situations in which – due to costs, lack of facilities or for health concerns – traditional animal dissections are simply not possible.”

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