From gravity effects to sweaty palms, watch the Nikon Small World video winners

Time lapses are an art form — but the one above also advances the science that could allow future astronauts to grow plants in zero gravity. The video by Daniel von Wangenheim of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria recently won the first-place prize from the Nikon Small World in Motion competition, an annual contest that celebrates both art and science by getting incredibly close looks at unusual — and sometimes, everyday — phenomena.

Von Wangenheim’s video may look a bit like a cartoon worm, but the shot is actually of a single root tip growing over a 17-hour period. All that motion in the video? That was actually only four millimeters. The root tip of a Thale cress or Arabidopis thaliana was part of a study that’s exploring how plants respond to gravity.

“Once we have a better understanding of the behavior of plant roots and [their] underlying mechanisms,” von Wangenheim said, “we can help them grow deeper into the soil to reach water or defy gravity in upper areas of the soil to adjust their root branching angle to areas with richer nutrients. One step further, this could finally help to successfully grow plants under microgravity conditions in outer space to provide food for astronauts in long-lasting missions.”

The research team, which also included Robert Hauschild, Matyas Fendrych, Eva Benkova, and Jiri Friml, turned the microscope on its side in order to get an upward view. Placing the plant on a rotation stage and simulating growing conditions with lights, the team saw that the root would bend down for each turn, correcting the growth to head down every time.

The rotating root was followed by a microscopic look at something that happens every day: sweat. The second-place video, made by Tsutomu Tomita of Japan, shows several close-ups of what happens on a microscopic level when we get sweaty palms. So how did he shoot it? Those sweaty hands are a result of the subjects watching daredevils climb skyscrapers.

The third-place video goes under the skin, capturing the leukocyte accumulations and platelet aggregations of a mouse — science-speak for how the body responds to an injury, such as a puncture wound.

Nikon named five winners and a set of honorable mentions in the contest, with shots ranging from the colorful patterns of water droplets inside of a cholesteric liquid crystal shell to the beautiful yet gross microscropic patterns inside of dried wart cream, all as described in the complete list of winners.

The Nikon Small World Contest is held annually, with every year bringing videos like these, and a separate competition for still shots and video.

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