27 July 2011

Names at light speed

A major staple of science fiction (especially tv and movies) is a device that can tell you what species of seaweed, stick insect, sun bird or slavering alien monster you are looking at. The tricorder of Star Trek is the most famous of these device. Just point and click and you get the identification of what the beastie is, lots of information about its ecology and the likelihood that it will suck your brain out. For the last decade ecologists have been working towards a machine with this ability but we may have been sidetracked by our DNA dependence. Much of the activity in this area has been around being able to diagnose species in the field by quickly analysing DNA samples. Which is fair enough because we have been spectacularly successful in using DNA to do all sorts of things (including quickly identifying species).
However, there may be a more elegant way of doing this: getting the answer, quite literally, at light speed (and what could be more scifi than that?). Rob Cruickshank (Lincoln University - pictured, appropriately in a red shirt) and Lars Munck (Copenhagen University) have summarised a new approach to identifying species that does not use DNA and gets us closer to 'point and click' technology. The most promising new method involves beaming near infra-red light onto the surface of the individual you wish to identify (say a beetle). You then calculate the amount of absorption/reflection of light coming off the surface. It turns out that different species of closely related species will absorb different amounts of light and have distinct 'fingerprints'. So without even collecting a sample you could identify individual species. At the moment this can only be done in a controlled lab environment and we are not sure if it will work on all sorts of different species with precision but the future is looking bright for the first 'real tricorder'! Make it so.

1 comment:

onefuriousllama.com said...

That, is pretty freaking awesome!

I always wonder how people come up with ideas like that; they seem so counter intuitive. I'd look at an insect and immediately think that the angles might reflect light differently, the surface area's would be different, the insect wont always be at the same angle. I'd never get to actually trying something like reflecting infra-red light off of it because I can't see past the problems.

It must be a result of my programmers brain that everything I see gets segmented into a bunch of problems that must be solved.

Science is awesome.