Microfauna in a termite gut © Fabian J Weston / 2021 Small World in Motion Competition

Mesmerising microfauna in termite gut wins 2021 microscopic video competition

These microscopic videos from the Nikon Small World in Motion 2021 competition make studying science visually stunning.

At first glance, the mesmerising movements shown in the winner of this year’s Nikon Small World in Motion competition look like crystal-clear fish swimming through a dazzlingly blue sea. But the real subject of Fabian J Weston’s video is something you’ve likely never seen before: microscopic organisms inhabiting the gut of a live termite.

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These small single-celled organisms are called microfauna, and their relationship with their host is vital – without them, termites can’t break down the cellulose in the wood that they eat.

The microfauna belong to a collection of organisms separate to animals and plants, called protists.

“Protists, while largely unknown to the general public, are indeed the most abundant creatures on the planet,” said Weston.

“There is a significant gap in our understanding about these termite symbionts and how this unique evolutionary relationship developed with its host, making it well worth exploring and presenting.”

“The most challenging part of capturing this video was finding the right solution for the creatures themselves,” he said.

“I tried a lot of methods, even preparing my own saline solution. They’re very sensitive to oxygen, so I had to remove as much gas from the solution as possible. It was very tricky, and I had to work fast. The video you’re seeing is the result of months of trial and error, a lot of research and perseverance.”

See more stunning images from the world of science:

Molecular biologists Dr Stephanie Hachey and Dr Christopher Hughes were awarded second place for their time-lapse video of an engineered human micro-tumour.

Hachey and Hughes photographed the micro-tumour growing over 10 days, taking a photograph every 15 minutes. The resulting video shows the vessels, in red, that support the growing cancer cells, in blue.

In third place is a video by Andrei Savitsky, showing a water flea giving birth to cubs. The water flea – which is, in fact, not a flea but a crustacean – is usually no more than 5mm long, though there is one ‘giant’ member of the species that can grow to 18mm.

It is thought that some species of water flea feed nearly all commercial fishes of the Great Lakes of North America.

Dr Alexandre Dumoulin, a researcher at the University of Zurich, won fourth place for his video. While it might look like the night sky on 5 November, the streaks of gold and white are actually segments of a nerve cell called axons. Here, axons in the central nervous system are shown moving together after crossing the middle of the spine, known as the midline.

Fifth place was awarded to Dr Sachie Kanatani and Dr Photini Sinnis, from the Sinnis Laboratory at John Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, for their video showing a mosquito salivating. This mosquito is infected with malaria, and the researchers have labeled the malaria parasites with a fluorescent chemical so they can be seen on the video.

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These are just some of the fantastic sights from science that were celebrated in the 2021 Nikon Small World in Motion competition. To see the entries given honorable mentions, and to find out more about the winning video, visit nikonsmallworld.com.

About the Nikon Small World In Motion 2021 competition

The competition celebrates the beauty of science, and includes any movie or digital time-lapse photography taken through the microscope.

The winners were selected by a panel of judges, including:

  • Dr Nsikan Akpan, Health and Science Editor at New York Public Radio
  • Hank Green, Science Fiction Author and Internet Creator
  • Robin Kazmier, Science Editor at PBS NOVA
  • Dr Alexa Mattheyses, Associate Professor of Cell, Developmental, and Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham
  • Dr Hesper Rego, Assistant Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis at the Yale School of Medicine