What might appear to be a view inside an unusual kaleidoscope is actually a laboratory plate full of ravenous roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) as seen through a microscope. Tens of thousands of worms (black), each about 1 millimeter in length at adulthood, are grazing on a field of bacteria beneath them. The yellow is a jelly-like growth medium called agar that feeds the bacteria, and the orange along the borders was added to enhance the sunburst effect.
The photo was snapped and stylized by NIH training grantee Adam Brown, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the lab of David Biron at the University of Chicago. Brown uses C. elegans to study the neurotransmitter serotonin, a popular drug target in people receiving treatment for depression and other psychiatric disorders. This tiny, soil-dwelling worm is a go-to model organism for neuroscientists because of its relative simplicity, short life spans, genetic malleability, and complete cell-fate map. By manipulating the different components of the serotonin-signaling system in C. elegans, Brown and his colleagues hope to better understand the most basic circuitry in the central nervous system that underlies decision making, in this case choosing to feed or forage.
The story behind this eerily beautiful image, a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 2015 Bioart competition, is rather serendipitous. Brown said he came into the lab early one morning to perform routine maintenance on the worm colonies. A drop full of bacteria had been added to this particular colony the night before near the middle of the agar plate. The bacteria tend to spread, like a coffee stain, to the edge of the expanding droplet, with hungry worms chasing after them. When Brown looked down through a dissecting microscope at the colony, he was greeted by this striking pattern of worms. Especially eye-catching were the unusual brown rays radiating off of the ring like a sunburst. The rays were worms, which he suspected had crawled away smeared in bacteria, attracting others to their moveable feast.
Since joining the Biron lab, Brown had been experimenting with holding his mobile phone’s camera to the eyepiece of the microscope at just the right angle to view the high-resolution image below. That morning, Brown reached for his trusty phone and, holding it extra steady, he tapped the camera button. Forgive the pun – but it was truly a case of the early bird getting the worms.
WormAtlas (Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY)
Biron Lab (University of Chicago)
BioArt (Federation of American Societies For Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health