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These microscopic time-lapse videos are the stuff of art and science

Dancing patterns and vibrant colors may make the videos from the sixth-annual Nikon Small World In Motion contest look more like art, but they’re actually both art and science. Nikon Instruments Inc. recently unveiled the winners from the video version of their photomicrography competition, displaying everything from a starfish larvae to the growth of mold spores.

The branch of Nikon dedicated to scientific imaging equipment, like microscopes, awarded the first-place honors in the competition to Stanford University’s William Gilpin for his shot of an eight-week-old starfish larvae (video above). As the larvae searches the water for food, the tiny creature’s motion turns the surrounding water into an intricate pattern.

Gilpin captured the footage while studying how physics impacts evolution — surprising the judges with the patterns the starfish created in the water. Gillpin’s video helped capture how the starfish’s appendages, believed to be a result of evolution, created the patterns, something previously unknown according to contest organizers. The motion captured in the video pulls particles in the water to the larvae for food — but also signals predators to the larvae’s position while limiting the microscopic creature’s ability to swim away.

“While starfish are among the first animals that have evolved to control the environment around them in this manner, science proves that adaptations are likely mimicked by other more complex animals later,” Gilpin said. “Biology aside, this process can also be the foundation for industrial purposes for something like advancements in water filters for precise manipulation of water.”

To get the shot, Gilpin’s team used tiny plastic beads in the water to create a visual representation of how the water moved around the starfish larvae. Using dark field microscopy to take images of the beads, the shots were then combined with a technique similar to time-lapse photography.

“For us, it’s incredible and exciting that something as widely known as a starfish can exhibit an unexpected and beautiful behavior, and we hope to share our excitement with others,” Gilpin said.

The contest’s second-place prize also went to a hungry organism — a ciliate, or a single-celled organism that uses hair-like appendages to move and eat. The Lacrymaria olor eats by extending its neck up to seven times the length of its body. The footage was captured by Charles Krebs, a previous Small World winner based in Issaquah, Washington.

Food contaminants like Aspergillus niger may not be pretty to suffer from, but they appear to grow much like flowers blossom — a time-lapse video captured by Wim van Egmond of the fungus took third place. Egmond, a researcher based in the Netherlands, created the video from about 100 different microscopic images.

Eric Flem, Nikon Instrument’s communications manager, said the winning videos illustrate how microscopic motion contributes to scientific research. “The beauty of [Gilpan’s] time-lapse video and the science behind it epitomizes how video is not only essential to scientific researchers, but to inspire future scientists to explore life around them,” he said. “It is one thing to see a still image captured under the microscope, but to see this life in motion truly puts the intricacy and beauty of the world into perspective.”

Along with the top three prizes, Nikon gave an honorable mention to 17 additional videos, ranging from 5x magnification to up to 400x, with subjects ranging from a wasp to healthy cells attacking a cancerous cell.

Contest organizers said that the technology that allows researchers to capture motion — and not just still images — under the microscope is a relatively new capability emerging from recent technological advancements. The latest round of winners marks the sixth year of the competition, while the still-image sister competition has been running since 1975.