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Microscopic marvels star in movies

Photographers entering Nikon's Photomicrography Competition captured stunning time-lapse images of organisms at work. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

What could be more marvelous than seeing microscopic wonders at super-close range? How about watching those wonders at work, through the magic of time-lapse photography? That's the kind of wow factor that Nikon Instruments was going for with their first-ever Small World in Motion Photomicrography Competition — and it looks as if the winning entries have hit the mark.

Top honors go to Anna Franz, a researcher at the University of Oxford's Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, for her video showing how ink makes its way through the blood vessels of a chick embryo.

Anna Franz / Oriel College / Oxford

Dark ink outlines the blood system of a chick embryo in this frame from a video created by Anna Franz of Oriel College and the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford. Franz carefully injected the ink into an artery within the egg and used a stereo microscope to track its flow through the vessels. The resulting video won top honors in Nikon's first Small World in Motion Photomicrography Competition. Click on the image to play the movie.

To create the time-lapse video, Franz cut a window into a chicken egg to expose the 72-hour-old embryo, and then carefully injected ink into its artery under a stereo microscope to visualize the blood system. Believe it or not, this was the first time Franz used this technique. She not only got it right; she also captured the blood's blossoming on video.

"This movie not only demonstrates the power of the heart and the complexity of vasculature of the chick embryo, but also reflects the beauty of nature's design," Franz said in today's announcement about the award-winners.

Second place goes to Dominik Paquet's glittering time-lapse view of mitochondria moving through sensory neurons in the tail of a zebrafish larva. Mitochondria are the energy-producing powerhouses of the cell, and play a vital role in sparking neural activity. This movie was created in the course of Paquet's research into the molecular and cellular pathologies associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Paquet and his team at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Disease in Munich were studying how problems with the transport of cellular components can affect nerve cells. Paquet says this video may represent the first-ever example of live imaging of mitochondrial transport in the nerve cells of an intact, unmodified vertebrate.

Dominik Paquet / German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases / Rockefeller U.

Medical researcher Dominik Paquet captured a time-lapse movie showing the movement of mitochondria through sensory neurons in the tail of a zebrafish larva. The movie won second place in Nikon's Small World in Motion contest. Click on the image to play the movie.

A microscopic crustacean known as a Daphnia or water flea plays with a Volvox, a spherical type of green algae, in a frame from a video that won third place in Nikon's Small World in Motion Photomicrography Competition. Click on the image to play the video.

The third-place winner is totally for fun. German vaccine researcher Ralf Wagner nabbed a Daphnia water flea from his garden pond and put it on his microscope slide for study. In Wagner's charming video, the water flea can be seen batting around a spherical Volvox green-algae colony as if it were a beach ball. Wagner acknowledges that the video doesn't document a scientific breakthrough; it just shows a microscopic creature interacting with its environment. It also shows off Wagner's flair for microscopy. A still image showing a similar scene was recognized as an image of distinction in the 2011 Nikon Small World contest. Wagner hopes that such pictures will remind viewers how much fun science can be, and perhaps inspire some of them to take up its study.

Nikon Instruments has been sponsoring the annual Small World contest for still photomicrography for 37 years — and Eric Flem, the company's communications manager, said the video contest was a natural outgrowth of the tradition. "We receive spectacular images for the Nikon Small World Competition, and it is with great excitement that we expand the competition to accommodate moving images and time-lapse photography," he said.

More than 200 contest entries were received for judging by Kurt Thorn, director of the Nikon Imaging Center at the University of California at San Francisco; and Michael Davidson, director of the Optical and Magneto-Optical Imaging Center at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University. In addition to the top three videos, the judges recognized 11 other entries with honorable mentions.

For the full playlist, click on over to the Nikon Small World website. You can also check in with Nikon Small World's Facebook page and its Twitter account, @NikonSmallWorld.

More small wonders:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor, and was on the judging panel for the 2011 Nikon Small World Competition. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.