Scientists at the University of Plymouth, England have achieved a major breakthrough in the field of bioimaging by developing a new technique that uses the fluctuations in video pixels to measure the change in energy usage of developing embryos, which can be used to predict biological traits of organisms. This accomplishment can help scientists study the impact of external factors such as climate change on the biological characteristics of developing organisms. Studying observable traits of organisms, such as their physical form, behaviour, heart rate and other observable processes going on inside a plant or animal is known as phenotyping. Phenotyping is considered important not only because it helps scientists develop crops that can efficiently feed our population while minimising the environmental impact, but also because biologists can use phenotyping to study changes in animals’ behaviour caused by climate change and how it is affecting our biodiversity. Phenotyping needs biologists to study each trait individually and then assess how interaction with the environment affects the genetically inherited traits of an organism.
“Choosing what to measure can often be a tough choice for biologists,” says Oli Tellis, one of the authors of the new study. According to him, this choice is like “throwing darts while blindfolded.”
This tedious challenge is often referred to as the “bottleneck” of phenotyping. The new technology, however, relieves researchers of studying each trait individually, by studying the changes in the collective energy usage and forming its associations with the individual traits.
In the study that was published in BMC Bioinformatics on May 6, 2021, the scientists filmed a developing embryo of a pond snail at three different temperatures. The fluctuations in video pixels provided scientists with insights into the changes in energy usage by the embryo. These changes were used to predict traits of biological significance, such as heart rate and movement. The predictions were then matched with the real data, proving that studying energy signatures was an effective technique.
“This study has important implications for how we approach such studies in future. It presents a method that is transferable to different species,” said Tellis in a news release by the University of Plymouth.