A tiny ocean vortex, with pop art pizzazz

2013 Visualization Challenge photography winner brings minuscule whirlpools to light

2013 Visualization Challenge photography winner

CORAL WHIRLPOOL Coral polyps (pink) kick up a whirling vortex of water (gold and aqua) by whipping their hairlike cilia back and forth. This image, produced by a research team at MIT and winner of the 2013 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge in photography, combines two photos taken 90 minutes apart.

V. Fernandez, Orr H. Shapiro, Melissa S. Garren, Assaf Vardi, Roman Stocker/MIT

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Corals may whip up whirlpools to spin specks of food in and bits of waste out. Scientists had known that hairlike bristles, or cilia, on coral help sweep nutrients in, but the purpose of bristles lining the valleys between coral polyps had been more mysterious. Using video microscopy, MIT environmental engineer Vicente Fernandez and colleagues recorded two short clips of Pocillopora damicornis coral in seawater, taken 90 minutes apart. The researchers traced particle paths (gold) and coral polyp locations (pink) captured in the first video and the paths and polyps (aqua and purple) recorded in the second, then combined them. The resulting image, which won the 2013 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge in photography, shows that the corals shifted position over time, but the vortex swirling in the 3-millimeter gap between them endured. These steady whirlpools might keep corals healthy, Fernandez says, and the between-polyp bristles probably keep water twirling.

Other notable entries in the 2013 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge:

LEAVES FULL OF STARS The tips of the tiny hairs on the leaves of the fuzzy Deutzia scabra shrub fan out into starlike shapes that measure just a quarter of a millimeter across. Photographer Stephen Lowry pumped up the vibrant blues in this polarized light microscopy image, which took an honorable mention in the photography category, by filtering the light through a selenite crystal. Stephen Francis Lowry/Steve Lowry Photography
POLYMERS ASSEMBLE What looks like a map of a city district is actually a two-millimeter-long structure built out of polymers. These compounds organize themselves into different shapes depending on factors like heat and humidity. A team at the University of South Florida in Tampa mounted a camera on a microscope to take the photo, which won the people’s choice award for photography. Anna Pyayt and Howard Kaplan/Univ. of South Florida
BRAIN ART A simplified depiction of the cerebral cortex shows nerve cells branching out like a forest of trees. Illustrator Greg Dunn painted his neurons by scattering pigments across the canvas with jets of air to win the illustration category. G. Dunn, Brian Edwards/Greg Dunn Design, Marty Saggese/Soc. for Neuroscience, Tracy Bale/Univ. of Pennsylvania, Rick Huganir/Johns Hopkins Univ.
PASSWORD PREFERENCE Computer scientist Lorrie Cranor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh created this word cluster, which earned an honorable mention for illustration, from the 1,000 most common passwords used on the gaming website RockYou. The larger the word, the more frequently people chose it for a password. Lorrie Faith Cranor/Carnegie Mellon Univ.
THE WAR ON BACTERIA Biofilms of Pseudomonas bacteria swirl across a human hand in this image by Lydia-Marié Joubert of Stanford University, which won the people’s choice award for illustration. Some of the bacteria (shown in red) have been killed by antibacterial treatment, but most (green) remain resistant. Lydia-Marié Joubert/Stanford Univ.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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