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Microscopic laser battle wins top honors in Nikon Small World contest

Olena Kamenyeva's Nikon Small World video shows a lymph node's immune response.

A laser attack on a lymph node provides the drama behind the top-rated video in Nikon's 2012 Small World in Motion competition, which celebrates time-lapse movies made on a microscopic scale.

The filmmaker behind the winning video, titled "Sensing Danger," is Olena Kamenyeva, a researcher at the National Institute of Heallth's NIAID Laboratory of Immunoregulation. Kamenyeva's experiment involved shooting a laser beam at a lymph node taken from a mouse's groin. The color-coded time-lapse view shows how white blood cells responded to the damage.

Kamenyeva said the movie "shows an efficient innate immune reaction in the lymph node, which typically has been studied for the development of adaptive immune response." The action was captured using a two-photon microscope, equipped with an L25.0 x 0.95 water immersion objective.

In this week's announcement of the winners, Nikon Instruments said the movie won first place because it demonstrated the delicate balance between science and art. "Dr. Kamenyeva's image is the perfect combination of cutting-edge science with aesthetics that we look for in Small World, to help raise the profile of science with scientists and non-scientists alike," said Eric Flem, communications manager for Nikon Instruments.

Nikon has been running its Small World contest for photomicrography since 1975, but this is only the second go-round for the "Small World in Motion" video competition. That just shows how quickly time-lapse photography has taken hold in scientific microscopy.

Sperm from two males compete within reproductive tract of a female fruit fly.

Second-place honors went to Stefan Lüpold, a biologist at Syracuse University, for a movie showing sperm from two different male fruit flies competing within the reproductive tract of a female fly. In the 400x time-lapse video, the sperm cells look like red and green worms scurrying through a complex network of tunnels.

"Competition between sperm is a widespread phenomenon throughout the animal kingdom and a powerful evolutionary force driving species diversity," Lüpold said in his contest entry. "However, it has been nearly impossible to study the fundamental biological processes associated with such sperm competition, occurring whenever sperm from different males mix inside of females. The very recent development of genetically modified fruit flies that produce sperm with either green- or red-fluorescent heads (as seen in the movie) is now allowing us to answer important biological questions."

Nils Lindström's video shows the development of a kidney.

Third place went to Nils Lindström of the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute for a short subject titled "Growing Complexity in the Kidney." The time-lapse video packs four days' worth of kidney cell growth, as seen through fluorescence imaging, into 21 seconds.

Nikon said the video provides a "striking example of how a kidney starts from a simple structure and gradually becomes a highly complex collecting duct system in a matter of days."

The top three winners will receive Nikon equipment worth a total of $3,500. (That's $2,000 for first, $1,000 for second and $500 for third prize.) An additional 10 entries were cited for honorable mentions. To see the full array of 13 videos, check out the Nikon Small World in Motion website or the YouTube gallery.

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.