The Secret World of a Termite’s Gut Revealed in Award-Winning Video

The footage shows the symbiotic relationship between a termite and the protists that help digest their food

An image of protists swimming around in the gut of a termite. The protists are leaf-shaped and translucent against a blue background.
To get the award-winning shot, Fabian J. Weston, used a microscope from the 1970s and went as far as creating a saline solution that would keep the micro-fauna alive while imaged. Fabian J. Weston

The invention of the first microscopes in the 16th and 17th centuries revolutionized the way we viewed the world. In 1676, bacteria invisible to the naked eye were observed for the first time, changing how scientists thought illnesses spread. Today, modern microscopes are so powerful that researchers can view tumors in detail or hormones present in a plant's root tips.

Nikon celebrates these elusive microscopic worlds with their annual Small World competitions. Various categories in the competition highlight photography and videos that showcase the beauty and complex systems seen through light microscopes. This year's first prize for Small World in Motion competition was awarded to Fabian Weston from New South Wales, Australia, who imaged the symbiotic relationship between termites and the microorganisms living in their gut, reports Aristos Georgiou for Newsweek.

Almost reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, the microorganisms seen swirling around in the blue-tinted video are protists, or single-celled organisms not related to bacteria, animals, or fungi, reports Eva Amsen for Forbes. Termites can't digest wood on their own, so protists living in their gut turn the plant cellulose into sugar and other molecular substances, per Newsweek.

Capturing the video took a lot of skill and guts—termite guts, of course. The organisms are sensitive to light and oxygen, so Weston spent numerous months resolving how to keep the protists alive while being imaged. To get the award-winning shot, Weston used a 1970s microscope and created a saline solution to hold the microfauna.

"I tried a lot of methods, even preparing my own saline solution. They're very sensitive to oxygen, so I had to remove as much gas from the solution as possible," Weston explains in a statement. "It was very tricky, and I had to work fast. The video you're seeing is the result of months of trial and error, a lot of research, and perseverance."

Weston created the video to showcase protists and bring awareness to the vital roles they play in various ecosystems on Earth. For example, protists also support coral reefs, Forbes reports.

Second place was awarded to Stephanie Hachey and Christopher Hughes from the University of California for their ten-day, time-lapsed video of an engineered tumor forming and spreading. Andrei Savitsky's video of a water flea giving birth to cubs won third place in the competition.

"We're living in an amazing time when we have the ability to capture and share high-quality scientific imagery," says Nikon spokesperson Eric Flem in a statement. "This year's winning entry highlights the power that microscopy has to connect like-minded individuals, educate others using engaging visuals, and spread scientific knowledge to the general public."