Quail Embryo Wins Top Prize in Nikon Competition

A 3D reconstruction of a quail embryo, comprised of more than 1,000 separate images Courtesy Nikon Small World/Dr. Gabriel G. Martins/Faculdade de Ciencias Universidad de Lisboa

A 3D quail embryo, the beating heart of a two-day-old zebra fish, and the inner workings of a cancer cell are the winners of this year’s Small World in Motion photomicrography competition, held by Japanese camera maker Nikon. The videos demonstrate how time-lapse photography taken through microscopes can enhance science’s understanding of things that lie beyond the capacity of the naked human eye.

First place went to the quail, assembled by Gabriel Martins of the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia in Oeiras, Portugal, from 1,000 separate virtual slices through the embryo after 10 days of gestation in its shell. Using this technique, similar to a CT scan, scientists like Martins are able to visualize the anatomy of specimens with extraordinary clarity.

“With this technology,” Martins says, “you don’t have to kill the sample and slice. You can get these 3D images generated, go online, and look at them in three dimensions and compare normal samples to your mutated sample. It saves people resources and time.”

If the winning entry demonstrates what can be understood about large organisms using state-of-the-art photography, the second-place zebra fish illustrates what can be gleaned at the ultramicroscopic level: Its heart is only 250 micrometers, slightly larger than the diameter of a human hair. Michael Weber at the Max Planck Institute of Cell Biology and Genetics, in Dresden, Germany, re-created the image in 3D after capturing the living zebra fish using fluorescence microscopy. Watch the blood cells as they’re pumped through the heart and its adjacent vessels.

Finally, third-place honors went to Lin Shao’s cancer cell, which shows the inner details of the mitochondria within the living cell—the first time such detail has been captured in a 3D image. Shao, working at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va., used structured illuminated microscopy applied to a wide-field microscope to double the resolution of a conventional microscope.

The competition is open to amateurs and professionals alike, though the cost of the sophisticated equipment required to snap these images and compile them into 3D video makes them the domain of scientific institutions. The rest of us will have to be satisfied with making animated GIFs.

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