A glowing, branching web slowly grows more and more tiny connections, with thin white tendrils reaching in to a black void. It looks like a fractal art piece. But in fact, it’s someone’s science research — the developing nervous system of a zebrafish embryo.
Nikon announced the winners of the eighth annual Small World in Motion contest, the video portion of its Small World still-photography competition. The contest highlights videos that demonstrate the intricate and beautiful world of biology beneath the microscope. This year’s big winners were Elizabeth Haynes and Jiaye “Henry” He from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for their visualisation of a zebrafish embryo developing its sensory nervous system over 16 hours.
“We’ve been taking this sort of data for a while,” Haynes told Gizmodo. “This was really the perfect movie. It contains so much information that we can use to study biology, and it’s also a piece of art as it is.”
Microscopist He and biologist Haynes imaged the zebrafish embryo beginning around 17 hours after fertilisation. The video shows two lines of cells in the spinal cords, then the branching nerve cells somehow properly arranging themselves. The fish are genetically modified so that the sensory neurons express green fluorescent protein, or GFP, which glows green when exposed to certain wavelengths of light.
Typical imaging processes might harm the embryo, explained He. But here, the team uses a specially shaped, faster laser pulse while imaging to minimise harm during development. They’re studying proteins called kinesins that walk along microtubules, the cellular scaffolding, transporting cargo in the cell. They hope to learn how specific subunits of this protein can select different pieces of cargo, and how that cargo might affect neural development or contribute to neurodegenerative disease.
The top five winners included other incredible videos as well, like a psychedelic video of a laser pulsing erratically through soap or a water flea giving birth.
Ultimately, Haynes and He entered the video to show people just how amazing biological development is. Said Haynes: “The take-home point for me is that so much goes right in the development of an organism.”