The award-winning videos of the microscopic world in 2020

  • Nikon's Small World in Motion competition showcased the best microscopic footage of the year.
  • The best entries are selected for their beauty and uniqueness.
  • They are helping to answer some of the world's biggest questions like how to cure cancer by studying melanoma cells or how the human body develops by looking at zebrafish embryos.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This is some of the best microscopic footage of the year. It's from Nikon's Small World in Motion competition, where the best entries are selected for their beauty and uniqueness. But there's much more to these images than their eye-catching appearance. They're also helping to answer some of the world's biggest questions. Researchers captured this process of melanoma cells morphing into two compartments, footage obtained by placing the cancer cell under extreme confinement.

Gregory Adams Jr.: We can create environments in which we mimic the microenvironment of the human body. Narrator: And we're watching the cell adapt and move in this microenvironment. Adams: So, we call one part, the small round part, the cell body, and the long part the leader bleb, and the leader bleb always leads the cell body to this other location during cell motility.

Narrator: Knowing how cells adapt and change in this environment is a vital piece of information on how cancers form and move throughout the body.

Adams: If we can help understand cell motility, hopefully one day we can help reduce the spread of cancer.

Narrator: And he isn't alone. Scientists Gloria Slattum and Stephan Daetwyler were able to track the development and movement of cancerous cells in a zebrafish embryo, the small blue dot you can see moving through the pink and purple dots in other cells. These dots are thanks to a fluorescent component that can be fused to any protein, first extracted from jellyfish by the late Nobel Prize winner Roger Tsien.

Gloria Slattum: By filming the whole tissue, we can actually analyze what happens in the whole animal, but then we can zoom in and look with very precision at what's happening in particular cells.

Narrator: And since zebrafish share over 70% of their genetic building blocks with humans, this footage can help inform research on how cancer cells interact in humans.

Stephan Daetwyler: Only if we know the context of a cell, we can truly understand how it migrates through a body and how it interacts and which cells are important on these parts through a body.

Narrator: The more information scientists gather in this area, the more they'll be able to detect cancer cells earlier in formation and understand their movements after. But this type of microscopic imagery of zebrafish isn't limited to just cancer research. It can also help in understanding human-body development.

Daniel Castranova: The zebrafish is a really great model, because it's obviously transparent as it develops, and we can watch blood vessels as they grow.

Narrator: That's exactly what you've been watching here: a zebrafish embryo developing and forming blood vessels, the speckles shown in green.

Castranova: We're interested in the genes that are involved in determining which vessels are arteries and veins. We're interested in how blood vessels know where to grow in the developing embryo.

Narrator: Understanding blood-vessel development allows researchers like Daniel to track and monitor how blood moves in the early stages of body formation, a vital piece in the puzzle when developing targeted therapies for cancer treatments. You can also use similar techniques to learn how that blood is pumped in the first place by looking at microscopic hearts — a two-day-old zebrafish heart, to be precise.

Anjalei Schlaeppi: There's about 1% of babies that are born with heart defects. For the US last year, that represents 40,000 children. And if we want to help these kids, we need to get a lot more information about hearts before they are born.

Narrator: Looking at how the heart works in microscopic detail is a major step.

Schlaeppi: There's always been a sort of question of how this heart pump, what are the minimal elements required to pump blood in the heart? And that's what I'm trying to uncover.

Narrator: Anjalie and her colleagues watched the beating zebrafish hearts to pinpoint specific functions and mechanisms, like how the heart beats without backward blood flow, which will help uncover these mysteries and, importantly, help prevent birth defects. And this technology is advancing so much that scientists are now even able to look at microscopic images of our brain, because this isn't a dazzling lightning strike in the night sky. It's actually growing brain cells. Andy Moore, a postdoctoral associate at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, looked at the growth of active neurons in rat embryos. This footage shows a critical step in brain development, the period when the neuron decides which of the many neurites become the axon, the part that will be in charge of sending an electric current. And until images such as Andy's, this information wasn't properly understood.

Andy Moore: It turns out a lot of these things that we thought we understood really well from textbooks maybe didn't get things quite as right as they could have now that we have the live movies in front of us and all these new technologies that we can use to look at those questions.

Narrator: Andy and his team can start to look at how neurons transmit, function, and develop in extreme detail, as well as looking at how these cells grow and how proteins within the brain move and push things around, which in turn allows them and other researchers to see how severe neurological diseases like ALS form as well. But other images in the competition went a little more old school and helped shed light on important ecosystems. Eric Lind captured this collection of images of a freshwater-snail embryo in which you can see the heartbeat as it develops. And Richard Kirby, a plankton specialist, captured this horseshoe worm larva. These species might not be as well known as other stars of aquatic life, but…

Richard Kirby: It's one of the biggest hidden worlds of life on this planet, and changes at the bottom will translate to changes at the top. So looking at the base of the marine food chain gives you a way to understand what's happening in the ecosystem and change in the ecosystem in particular.

Narrator: But this year's winner of the Small World in Motion competition wasn't alive at all. The star of the show was a simple water droplet. Technically, microdroplets that are 80% water and 20% ethanol. The video was taken by Xiao Yan and Kazi Rabbi, whose research focuses on creating surfaces that repel water, which you can see happening in the video — something that could help manufacturers create energy-efficient technologies, like improving air-conditioning units or stopping pipes from freezing in the wintertime or even preventing your glasses from fogging up. And it's this image that encapsulates what microscopic images do best: bringing us all into the unseen world of the small and minuscule and offering a vision of the future.

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