Science

Watch Countless Small Worlds Pulse: From Liquid Crystals to Sea Cucumbers


“In nature nothing exists alone,” wrote Rachel Carson in her 1962 book Silent Spring. She warned that pesticides absorbed by soil run into streams, rivers and reservoirs unnoticed, poisoning living creatures along the way. Carson ignited the modern environmental movement by showing that stewardship of the living earth begins with simple attention. Her task would likely have been far easier if people could see this interconnected life up close.

A lot has changed since then. Glowing tardigrade muscles, SARS-CoV-2 infections in bat brain cells, a thrilling flight through a seven-day-old chicken embryo’s nervous system—such otherwise invisible small worlds pulse with energy, undeniably alive. Now in its 11th year, Nikon’s Small World in Motion competition has made these phenomena, and more, visible—collected from microscopes around the world.

The first-place winner this year, amateur microscopist Fabian J. Weston in Pennant Hills, Australia, captured the symbiotic relationship between termites and the single-celled microorganisms found inside them. Within the insects’ gut, these microbes, called protists, help them digest the cellulose—the main component of plants’ cell walls—that they eat and cycle carbon back into the soil.

“There is a significant gap in our understanding about these termite symbionts and how this unique evolutionary relationship developed with its host, making it well worth exploring and presenting,” Weston told the competition organizers. He hopes the final result will bring greater public awareness to the role that all protists play in every ecosystem on earth.

To capture the video, Weston used a research microscope from the 1970s and polarized light. The final result took months of trial and error and minute changes to the pH, chemical composition and temperature of the termites’ environment tokeep both the insects and the protists inside them alive.

The second-place winners, molecular biologists Stephanie Hachey and Christopher Hughes, both at the University of California, Irvine, shot a time-lapse video of an engineered human micro tumor forming and metastasizing, with images taken every 15 minutes for 10 consecutive days.

The 2021 winners and honorable mentions explored wildly distinct tiny corners of the universe that were magnified by up to 120 times. In each case, it’s impossible to ignore the thrumming vitality seen beneath the surface.


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