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When Google Maps meets the human body, here's what happens

Melding technology designed to examine silicon wafers with Google Maps algorithms has yielded a remarkable way to look at our own bodies.

It might look like some lonely landscape, but this is actually an image of a human hip joint. Screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

The "Earth" view in Google Maps lets us zoom from the heights of our atmosphere to the tops of our homes, putting our place in the world in dramatic perspective. New technology helps the zoom factor continue -- straight down into our bodies.

At the just-concluded Orthopedic Research Society meeting in Las Vegas, Melissa Knothe Tate from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia presented a new kind of imaging technique that will let scientists zoom in to the body with the same fluidity as Google Maps lets us zoom into our neighborhoods.

To create the technique, the biomedical engineer and a group of researchers from other universities tapped technology originally invented by German company Zeiss to scan the surface of silcon wafers such as those used in microelectronics. The imaging technology can take millions of microscopic images of an area of the body -- and offers advantages over MRIs.

"MRI is the equivalent of looking at the map of the United States or a map of Europe, where you see the individual country borders," Knothe Tate told Quartz. With her technique, "you see the individual inhabitants within the cities and the countries."

But once those images -- which can range from "centimeters-long human joints to nanometer-sized molecules inside a single cell inhabiting the tissue," according to The Sydney Morning Herald -- are assembled, they comprise an enormous set of data that can be hard to wield. So the researchers turned to the same algorithms used by Google Maps to stitch the images together into one zoomable picture.

"For the first time we have the ability to go from the whole body down to how the cells are getting their nutrition and how this is all connected," Knothe Tate said in a statement. "This could open the door to as yet unknown new therapies and preventions."

Knothe Tate, who focuses on regenerative medicine, told Quartz that the new technology can let her go from seeing cracks in the bone to zooming in deeper to observe weak blood vessel connections. Such an analysis of data used to take up to 25 years, but can now be done in weeks, says the UNSW report. With this new understanding, Knothe Tate hopes to develop preventive and recuperative treatments for individuals suffering from bone and joint ailments.

To get an example of the technology in action, head over here to view a zoomable map of a human hip joint. Hey, I think I see my house by that stream!

(Via ScienceAlert)