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Open source bone biology software brings benefits

Copyright: John Hutchinson, Royal Veterinary College

BBSRC-funded research into the relationship between bone structure and animal movement has led to the creation of free, open source software called BoneJ. Developed by scientists undertaking biomechanics research at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), the software has been downloaded more than 28,000 times by users across 56 countries.

Supported by a £336k investment from BBSRC, the work is used in fields from marine biology to food science, and also led to a collaboration with architecture firm Foster + Partners that focused on understanding the self-repairing and structural properties of bone for use in new building materials.

Data breakout

28,000 Number of downloads of BoneJ software
56 Number of different countries with BoneJ users
450,000 Number of modules of the program run by users in 2016 alone

The research was led by Professor John Hutchinson at the RVC and Dr Sandra Shefelbine at Imperial College London. BoneJ was developed by Dr Michael Doube, the post-doctoral researcher on the project and now a Lecturer at RVC. It arose from the researchers looking at how bone structure changes between closely-related species of different sizes. They used motion capture video systems and pressure plates to capture behavioural data from groups of animals, combining it with detailed CT scans of bones to provide estimates of the physical forces and loads placed on bones in animal of different sizes as they move.

However, their image analysis software was unable to handle the data. So Doube took existing plug-ins for open-source imaging software ImageJ and created the first version of BoneJ. Unlike many expensive commercial image packages), it can be modified allowing researchers to adapt it to meet specific needs. The software’s flexibility has also led to the creation of a supportive online community.

“Before this, if you wanted to image bone data, you either had to write your own software, which is laborious, or you had to use expensive, limited commercial software,” says Hutchinson. Increasingly, funders and academic publishers require researchers to share data and software tools as part of their methods. Doube has continued to develop BoneJ with support from the Wellcome Trust, and in late 2016 Doube received additional funding from BBSRC to develop new capabilities for the software.

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