Featured Stories | February 7, 2014

Stocker Lab’s Stunning Coral Wins A Prize

By Genevieve Wanucha

Today, the photograph “Invisible Coral Flows” from scientists in Professor Roman Stocker’s Environmental Microfluidics Lab won first place in the photography category of the 2013 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge, a competition held by National Science Foundation and AAAS. The image, which reveals the dynamic path of seawater as it flows around coral polyps, now graces the cover of the Feb. 7 issue of Science.

Vicente I. Fernandez, Orr H. Shapiro, Melissa S. Garren, Assaf Vardi, and Roman Stocker, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The researchers created this image as part of a study on how corals engineer their environment. Indeed, the photo captures how the corals’ wafting cilia beat the water into a vortex, which sucks nutrients toward the coral and sweeps away waste products, to enhance their exchange of nutrients and gases with the water.

“This was a unanimous winner,” said judge Alisa Zapp Machalek in a comment to AAAS. “It’s a striking image—but it also represents an aspect of nature that, to our knowledge, had never been captured before.”

Post docs Vicente Fernandez and Orr Shapiro submerged Pocillopora damicornis coral in seawater containing tiny nutrient particles under a microscope lens. They then used video microscopy to capture the movement of two coral polyps (each 1 mm) and the dynamic flow of particles in the water around them over 90 minutes. To create the actual image, they super-imposed successive frames from the video to highlight the flow. Later, they applied vivid colors to the image, and the strongly contrasting hues from the palette of Andy Warhol’s 1967 silkscreen prints of the actress Marilyn Monroe provided just the illumination they needed to reveal the invisible.

This announcement serves as a great introduction to the Oceans at MIT story The Hidden Life of Ocean Microbes, which explores how researchers in Professor Roman Stocker’s MIT lab are starting to comprehend how life at the microscale can shape the entire ocean ecosystem. The story features microbiologist Melissa Garren, who participated in the coral research that led to this winning image.