A team of researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus has won first prize in the 2014 Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition, widely recognized as the world’s foremost showcase for outstanding images and movies of life science subjects captured through light microscopes. Fernando Amat, Philipp Keller, and William Lemon were awarded the prize for their video that captures the early development of a fruit fly embryo.

In their movie—which is actually a compilation of a million images captured over about 20 hours—viewers can see biological structures begin to emerge as a simple cluster of cells morphs into an elongated body with tens of thousands of densely packed cells. The movie concludes when the embryo begins to twitch, driven by contractions of its newly formed muscles—moments before the hatching of a fruit fly larva just half a millimeter long.

 Another Janelia researcher, Igor Siwanowicz, a member of the Leonardo Lab, received third prize for a confocal microscope image of barnacle appendages that sweep plankton into the barnacle's shell for consumption. Siwanowicz won first prize last year for his confocal image of an aquatic carnivorous plant, the humped bladderwort.

“The point is to make something visible that was invisible before, to see it at a new level,” said Keller. “It’s a very direct approach to studying a certain biological process. In this case you just need to look at it and you have an immediate sense if you have a successful experiment, and if it answered the questions you set out to answer,” he said.

Their video was selected from nearly 2,500 entries worldwide. First prize carries an award of $5,000 worth of Olympus equipment. The team plans to donate the equipment to the Children’s Science Center, a new museum that will be opening in Northern Virginia in 2015.

“We hope they use it to teach kids about science and what microscopes are, and how they can be used, “ said Lemon. “That’s what we do here at Janelia, we use microscopes, and we think that’s pretty cool. It would be great to spread that knowledge.”

The winning video was captured with a simultaneous multi-view (SiMView) light sheet microscope that was developed by Keller’s lab in 2012. This imaging technique allowed scientists to capture three-dimensional images with unprecedented speed and precision over periods of hour or days.

“Three years ago it would have been impossible to do that experiment. We had to build the SiMView microscope first. The first videos looked kind of ugly compared to what you see now. These are new generation videos, are they are really useful for quantitative analysis,” said Keller.

The microscope's images can reveal the divisions and intricate rearrangements of individual cells as biological structures emerge in a developing embryo.

“When we see the data for the first time it’s very exciting. In almost every instance of each experiment there are things that happen that we weren’t sure would work like they did,” said Keller.

Keller’s lab developed a new computational method in 2014 to track the 3D movement of cells in a developing animal. Using the technique, scientists can essentially automate much of the time-consuming process of reconstructing an animal's developmental building plan cell by cell.

“There is a lot of processing and computational analysis that comes after the data is gathered,” said Amat. “You need many algorithms to figure out how the data looks visually in order to analyze it.”

A panel of leading authorities in microscope imaging judged all entries. The 2014 winning entries reflect the latest advances in neuroscience and developmental biology as documented by researchers. Nine movies were among the winners this year.

“The videos can be very beautiful and you can process them in a way that highlights that aspect. It’s like a pleasant side effect of the science,” said Keller. “We are motivated by the science, and we try not to get side tracked and get lost in the beauty of the data. But it’s certainly fun to look at.”