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Scientists turn unseen world into 3D models

From left, Dr Matthew Savoian, Dr Katherine Holt and Ben Pedersen with the pollen model they created.

By combining leading imaging and three-dimensional printing technologies, seeing, and even feeling, the normally unseeable is becoming a reality.

Thanks to the technology and expertise available at the Manawatū Microscopy and Imaging Centre and the Massey University School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, palynologist (pollen scientist) Dr Katherine Holt has created 3D models of microscopic pollen grains.

Dr Holt, who lectures in Massey University’s Institute of Agriculture and Environment, came up with the idea after noting her students were having trouble identifying pollen under a more basic transmitted light microscope. She says under the microscope, complex three dimensional objects like pollen can only be observed in two dimensions.

“I had seen people making 3D models of pollen that could then be viewed on a computer. I thought, why not take this one step further and print them out in 3D?

What surprised me is that it’s a really simple idea but no one had actually done it before.”

Dr Holt worked with the imaging centre to image four species of native tree pollen – Red Beech, Matai, Mountain Toa Toa and Rangiora (also known as ‘bushman’s friend’) with a scanning confocal microscope to create a three-dimensional model. This was possible because of the microscope’s ability to section the pollen granules optically and the inherent fluorescent properties of the pollen grains themselves.

Dr Matthew Savoian, who leads the centre, says the building blocks for such "technology fusions” exist, it is just a matter of using them.

“The wonderful thing about the centre is we can see what’s feasible as well as the limitations of any particular technology.”

A pollen model being three-dimensionally printed.

Pollen gets super-sized

With the assistance of fourth year Bachelor of Engineering student Ben Pedersen, from the Massey University School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, the quality of the 3D data sets was further improved using a process known as deconvolution. By means of mathematics, the known behaviour of light within the microscope and the known size of the pollen, a specialised computer programme maximised the image resolution and removed any “fuzziness” in the computer model.

Mr Pedersen and Dr Holt then experimented with two different printing methods – a more low resolution molten polymer deposition method and a higher resolution selective laser sintering method.

The result was a selection of pollen models scaled to 2000 to 3000 times actual size, that allowed to students to see and feel the shape, proportion and texture of the species. Dr Holt says these methods are preferable to crafting the pollen by hand because you get a fairly accurate representation of the actual object.

“I used to use balloons or plasticine to demonstrate pollen morphology to students but there’s something about knowing this is based on the actual thing that makes it amazing. It’s a great way to expand our resources for teaching.

Anything on the microscopic scale can be blown up, while anything really large, like a mammoth skeleton, can be scaled down. Just imagine: every high school could have their own pollen models or even their own replica moa bones! ”

Dr Savoian says part of the success of the project is the expertise available through the imaging centre.

The centre has three full-time staff members, each with a specialty in a particular imaging technology such as scanning or transmission electron microscopy and light microscopy. This means they are able to provide complementary tools and expertise for a variety of scientific fields including the life sciences, food technology and physical sciences.

“You might have carbon nanofibres one week and be looking at dairy products the next”

The service is free for Massey University staff and students.

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