When scientist Erik Andrew Johannessen wanted to showcase his single-celled microorganisms he chose the most appropriate and eye-catching medium — Pac-Man. The University College of Southeast Norway professor recreated the highly recognizable maze from the ’80s arcade game on a micro-scale level that can only be seen with a microscope. And not only did he build a cool-looking replica, but he also populated the maze with euglena, rotifers, and other single-celled organisms to create a live version of the game.
In a prepared statement for USN’s website, Johannessen said he created the elaborate maze for two reasons. First, he wanted to highlight the work being done at the Institute of Micro and Nano System Technology — and what better way to get people’s attention than by tying his work into one pf the most recognizable video games to date. Second, he wanted to experiment with micro- and nano-systems technology and see how they could be designed to replicate an organism’s natural environment.
The scientific interest is what drove Johannessen to create his 3D maze. This 3D environment more closely resembles a microorganism’s environment, which is filled with peat and moss that create obstacles and pathways for movement. This maze environment is significantly different than the traditional 2-dimensional Petri dishes which have no barriers or internal structures except for the edges that hold the medium. By adding this labyrinth, Johannessen hopes to trigger the organisms’ natural behaviors and learn more about the techniques they use to navigate these complicated pathways.
To bring the game to life under the microscope, Johannessen worked with filmmaker Adam Bartley, who used neon lighting to light up the maze and capture it on film. The maze itself is contained with a circle measuring just under a millimeter, and is filled with a nutrient-rich fluid that makes it easy for the organisms to swim around the labyrinth. And swim they did.
According to Johannessen, the rotifers at first were very cautious and moved slowly through the maze. After a day of acclimation, the little buggers were dashing around the maze in an organized way that suggests they used their exploration stage to lay down some form of chemical signals for use in navigation. Johannessen and his team plan to create even more intricate mazes and use digital tracing methods to determine if there is any logic in the way the organisms move within the labyrinth.