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Halloween Fly-Through of a Mouse Skull

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Credit: Chai Lab, University of Southern California, Los Angeles

Halloween is full of all kinds of “skulls”—from spooky costumes to ghoulish goodies. So, in keeping with the spirit of the season, I’d like to share this eerily informative video that takes you deep inside the real thing.

In this colorful 3D animation, you’ll “fly” through a mouse skull that has been painstakingly reconstructed from digital scans of individual skull and facial bones. Among the sights are:

  • Lower jaw, or mandible (orange)
  • Upper jaw, premaxilla (green)
  • Nasal bone (purple)
  • Base of skull, occipital bone (blue)
  • Rear of skull, parietal (aqua) and interparietal (yellow) bones
  • Front of skull, frontal bone (red)

This unique view of a mammalian skull was produced by the NIH-supported FaceBase Consortium. Since 2009, consortium members have generated a diverse body of genomic and other datasets on how craniofacial bones form during development and assemble to form the larger structures of the skull and face.

This trove of biological information—drawn from zebrafish, mice, and humans—will enable researchers to better understand normal craniofacial development and the variations that affect the size and shape of the jaw, skull, and other parts of the face and cranium. They can also use these publicly available datasets, most of which have been replicated multiple times, to see what can go wrong in people to cause facial or skull malformations, such as a cleft lip, cleft palate, or the distortions of the skull associated with craniosynostosis (where the sutures between bones fuse too early).

This video marks the start of even bigger digital things to come. Yang Chai, chair of the FaceBase steering committee and a researcher at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, is now pilot testing a 3D virtual-reality version of this video. It will enable researchers wearing virtual-reality goggles to use a joystick to navigate into the skull to isolate an individual bone and then zoom in or rotate that bone to any orientation that they wish to analyze and perform quantitative analyses on any defect of interest.

FaceBase will also soon enter a new phase that will include integrating its data with other existing biological data sources. With these interconnected databases and the latest digital imaging tools, Chai foresees a day when researchers will be able to use information about a specific gene mutation to visualize its developmental effects in the skull and face, as well as look for its manifestations elsewhere in the body.

Wouldn’t that be a neat trick to provide a treat for scientists and patients alike? Happy Halloween!


Craniofacial Birth Defects (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)

FaceBase Consortium (University of Southern California, Los Angeles)

Chai Lab (USC)

Yang Chai Elected to National Academy of Medicine (USC)

NIH Support: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research


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