From flies to fetal viability

Research by zoologists at the University of Oxford into how hoverflies achieve their exquisite control has led, rather unexpectedly, to a means of improving IVF techniques.

I’ve worked on paraglider design with Adrian Thomas as an aerodynamics consultant for more than ten years, including the wing I won the World Championship on in 2007. Working with an academic gives a fresh perspective with different priorities. In the end the goal is common – not just profit, but better products.

Bruce Goldsmith, Paraglider Designer and 2007 World Paragliding Champion, ADVANCE Paragliders

Understanding how insects and birds stay the right way up in flight and how their wing shapes and movements contribute to their speed and manoeuvrability has long been a quest for both zoologists and aircraft designers.

Adrian Thomas, Professor of Biomechanics, and his colleagues in the Animal Flight Group at the University of Oxford, study a variety of creatures, from eagles to flies. The hoverfly is a species of particular interest because it has one of the most flexible and versatile wings of any flying insect. With wings that twist through 45 degrees and flap 200 times a second, hoverflies are able to maintain precise control as they hover near a flower or plant, even in turbulent wind conditions. The amount of lift they generate per unit area of wing is enormous.

To analyse exactly what is happening the Oxford researchers released flies into a transparent chamber with vertical beams of light – simulating a woodland glade – then used lasers to trigger an array of high-speed digital video cameras, capturing the action in 3D.

From-flies-to-fetal-viabilityThe analysis techniques developed by the team can measure the exact shape, position and angle of the wings to better than a degree, tracking hundreds of points across the wing surface. The resulting information is finding applications in, for example, the design of unmanned drone aircraft, in the shape of paragliders, and in making laptops smaller because their fans can achieve greater lift and operate more efficiently.

The sophisticated image tracking techniques are also finding other uses. Thanks to a conversation with an Oxford cell biologist who works in the same building, the technique is being used to analyse fertilised eggs created by IVF. Measuring the images of developing embryos to see how they are moving – a completely non-invasive process – tells IVF researchers which ones are most likely to develop to term. The most viable single embryo can be selected for implantation, instead of multiple embryos being used. A clinical trial with IVF research groups from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Cardiff is taking place.

Funded by: The Wellcome Trust, the European Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research.


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