The ring of purple-bodied, yellow-footed creatures look like something from another planet. For Chiara Anselmi, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford Medicine, the image is reminiscent of an egalimind: a type of hive mind in science fiction whose members share the same memories and thoughts, yet retain their individuality.
But these animals, which were the subject of “Connected Consciousness in an Undersea Egalimind,” Anselmi’s award-winning photo submission in this year’s scientific image competition hosted by the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, are completely real. They’re known as Botryllus schlosseria colonial marine organism composed of multiple smaller individuals that share a circulatory system.
I spoke with Anselmi to learn more about the science behind her submission and what inspired her to enter the contest.
Tell me about your research.
I study the nervous system of B. schlosseri at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine as part of a larger project to pin down the underlying mechanisms behind biological regeneration and aging. Our project analyzes the animal’s neural development through its sexual and asexual life cycles, while also comparing the neurodegenerative processes of young and old colonies.
Can you walk me through the science behind this image?
This image shows some of the molecular and morphological details of B. schlosseri. Each color in the image represents a different gene. I marked each of the three genes with a specific fluorescent marker. Green shows where the APP gene is expressed, or where it is active – typically in the nervous system, which is composed of the brain and neural gland, of each individual. In purple you see the SOX2 gene expression, which occurs largely in the stigmata, organs that are responsible for capturing food particles and absorb oxygen from the water. Yellow indicates GFAP gene expression; this gene’s activity is concentrated in the siphons, which are responsible for drawing in and expelling water. More specifically, the GFAP gene is expressed in the siphons’ epithelial cells, which are responsible for the sensing and closure of the siphons.
In humans, these genes are generally expressed in our nervous system, but in B. schlosseri they are expressed in the nervous system and in other tissues.
What inspired you to submit this image?
I wanted to spread awareness of this animal, as it’s not something that many people know about. And it’s beautiful. When I used the confocal microscope, which relies on laser scanning to increase the resolution and contrast of a magnified image, to take this picture, I was stunned. I certainly expected to see some kind of color-coded gene expression, but when I saw all of this beautiful coloring it made me very emotional. I wanted to show the entire animal, which is important because we are talking about a colonial animal, which is not usually studied. Many scientific images used for publications are very focused on a single organ, or on a few cells, but this image showing the entire colony as composed of different individuals really stuck with me.
How do you think about combining art and science?
What really pushed me to enter this contest was the fact that I could be artistic with the science. I make a lot of scientific illustrations for my papers and in manuscripts, where you have to be very precise without modifying anything. With this picture, because I wanted to show the different organs of the animal, I made a collage of several pictures that each showed the expression of a different gene. I really like the idea of combining art and science – I think it’s beautiful.
Photo by Chiara Anselmi