The Colors of the Microcosmos

The Colors of the Microcosmos


This amoeba is making its home out of a drop
of water, taken from a larger sample and then sandwiched between a glass slide and a coverslip
before being placed onto a microscope, oh so carefully. And perched above, is us, peering down through
the lens to see a magnified version of its daily life. And coming from underneath the slide is white
light, often passing through microbial bodies so that they appear transparent, like moving
outlines. But white light is a fracturable thing, made
up of different wavelengths that can interact in their own particular ways with the world
they encounter, absorbed by some materials and reflected by others. For wavelengths that lie in the visible spectrum,
that reflected light gives us color. Like the inside of this ciliate, its clear
body rendered kaleidoscopic following a colorful meal. We often link color to perception: how we
see it, how it makes us feel, how we pick and choose our favorites. Colors signal, not just like traffic lights,
but in nature. Feathers that attract, bright markings that
warn, and patterns that camouflage. But setting aside our own voyeurism, there
are no complex eyes on you when you’re microscopic. The colors that emerge are entirely incidental,
in a sense stripped down to their fundamental natures: the product of light absorbing and
reflecting at different wavelengths, these colors do not exist to communicate or signal,
they’re just the color they are, and when we find beauty here, it’s not because there’s
any advantage to that beauty, it’s just luck. Maybe the easiest color to translate from
what we see on a daily basis to what we observe under the microscope is green, the color of
photosynthesis, and thus of many plants and photosynthetic microbes. This is, of course, not a coincidence, but
a monochromatic pattern of evolution and endosymbiosis, the product of an ancient cyanobacterium that
made its home in a plant and brought the green pigment chlorophyll along for the ride. When light hits chlorophyll, the molecule
absorbs energy from the red and blue wavelength, exciting electrons and powering the reactions
that produce storages of chemical energy. What remains to the observer, to us, are the green
wavelengths that reflect. Other photosynthetic microbes rely on chlorophyll
as well, sometimes containing different forms of the pigment that allow them to access other
wavelengths of light. While chlorophyll is essential to cyanobacteria,
the “cyano-” in their name implies another important color: blue. This is the product of phycocyanin, which—combined
with chlorophyll—gives the organisms that color that makes them often known as “blue
green algae.” Phycocyanin is an accessory pigment, it’s
nature’s way of hedging its photosynthetic bets. Relying strictly on chlorophyll, after all,
would restrict what kind of light an organism can take advantage of. For cyanobacteria, this can be particularly
problematic if that light gets absorbed by water or by other organisms above them. So it relies on assemblies of phycocyanin
to absorb additional wavelengths, creating alternate sources of excitation energy for
photosynthesis. But there are, as always, exceptions Other microbes use a class of molecules called
carotenoids as accessory pigments, which bring pops of yellow, orange, and red. Like chlorophylls, these are a type of chemistry
that we’re familiar with from plants and vegetables we see everyday, like the orange
carotene of carrots. Translate them into the microbial world, and
you get diatoms like this one, its beautiful golden brown color derived from the carotenoid
fucoxanthin. But carotenoids can serve other purposes,
like the red pigment astaxanthin, which we see on a more regular basis in the pinkish color
of shrimp. The most plentiful source of astaxanthin is
this microscopic Haematococcus, which we found in a cemetery birdbath. When conditions are good, the Haematococcus
is green. But if the sun becomes too intense or nutrients
become scarce, they form protective cysts and produce large amounts of astaxanthin,
which shields the cells from harmful ultraviolet light. These cysts are almost indestructible, valiant
against chemical and mechanical attempts to break them until conditions return to normal,
allowing the Haematococcus to do the same. Euglena sanguinea use astaxanthin to protect
themselves as well, rapidly reddening in response to large amounts of light to protect themselves
from the dangerous rays of the sun. These pigments have implications beyond their
microbial uses or even their visceral beauty. Scientists have converted pigments like phycocyanin
into a fluorescent tool that allows us to map out the interiors of other cells, and
Haematococcus and diatoms are objects of study for the potential health benefits their carotenoids
may confer. Their colors are observed and utilitarian
in our hands, guiding and identifying and indicating. Earlier, we stated a simple premise of the
microcosmos: that its inhabitants live in a world largely unobserved. We made that statement while casually setting
aside the obvious: that you and I, we are here, watching these microbes, both colorful
and not. They did not evolve to be seen, in fact we
went almost our entire history without ever seeing one, but now they have certainly captured
our attention. These colors developed long before we were
around to notice them, independent of our preferences and our needs. But we have bodies and minds that have evolved
to take note. Even the examples we’ve highlighted today
emphasize our own observational bias, focusing on wavelengths that are visible to us as a
species even while light extends far beyond that spectrum. Color is, to us, often subjective, but it’s
a product of light of physics and of chemistry that has impacts at all scales. Even if the way we process it varies, the
underlying physics does not. What the microcosmos helps us understand is
that there is more to color than what we see, that our perception of it is only one facet
of what it means to live in an illuminated world. Thank you for coming on this journey with
us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. Journey to the Microcosmos is a production
of Complexly which is a company that makes stuff for youtube and right now at Complexly
we’re trying something really new. We’re trying three new things. It’s a pilot season. We’re launching three brand new shows, each
on their own channel and each will run for three episodes. And then we’ll decide if any of those will
continue on. Now, we love all of these ideas but we can’t
make all of them happen so we’d love your feedback and what you think should continue. Please check them out and share your thoughts And thank you to all of these people who support
this channel on Patreon so that we can continue making these very cool videos. If you’d like to join them, and we would
love it if you did, you can check us at Patreon.com/journeytomicro. And if you want to see more from our Master
of Microscopes, James, check our Jam and Germs on Instagram.

Comments

  1. Post
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    Señor Payaso

    To Everyone involved in this show: thank you barely starts to express my gratitude for this channel. I wish so much that I could help with your patreon. I can’t get enough of these episodes. Every single slide completely blows my mind in the best way possible. Makes me think what else we have to discover that we have no clue about yet. We live in an amazing time in history. We’re blessed to be alive right now. Cheers 🥂

    (I don’t mean blessed in any kind of religious way 😉 not that it’s bad, it’s just not for me)

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    Hime Naaa

    As usuall, the quality never goes down from TOP quality,

    not only these kind is remedy for hectic monday chaos, but these is informative and relaxing.

    now im wonder if we are the micro, what type of us?

    since the universe are very big,

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    flamencoprof

    Your commentary is great, touching on the nature of knowledge, observation and perception.
    As much Philosophy as Science. Thanks for this eye and mind-opening channel!

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    Kurtis Boon

    Dope video Hank and team. Def thought you were gonna bust out a UV or IR microscope after 7:47 and somehow be able to capture that on cam but I don’t know if that’s even possible or if the microbes give off those wavelengths tho

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    George Sconyers

    What blows my mind is that this universe of near infinite complexity and beauty exists in sidewalk crack moss and pond water.

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    براہمداغ

    I find it fascinating how color green is right in the center/bull's eye of the human eye visible spectrum.

    Might it be because our eye sensitivity evolved around focusing mainly on green.

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    Ptarmigan 135

    Question about chlorophyll: is it just the one pigment making the green colour, absorbing both blue and red light? How does the organism input the different energies into the same photosyntesis pathway? I am thinking about how in photosynthesis electrons get excited in the reaction centre of photosystems, and probably need to gain a very defined amount of energy for this. There are also other chlorophylls around, but what happens if they absorb either blue or red light, how do they always pass the same energy to the electron being excited? Does excess get converted to eg. heat?

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    Spiderific!

    Would love to see some microbiology about Candida glabrata. Got it in a New York City hospital last year and it has been drug resistant and I still can't kill it. There is not a whole lot of indepth information about the microbiology and disease pathology as it relates to the bladder, where it is affecting me. A cystoscope revealed ulcers and chronic and acute inflammation from infection. I know this is a long shot, but any info on this could be a life changer for me.

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    Ptarmigan 135

    At 1:05 Hank explains that the coulour we see is what is not absorbed, but reflected. Wouldn't it be transmitted light we are seeing here? Which has me wondering why is the transmitted and reflected light the same? I understand it's both the stuff that isn't absorbed, but what actually leads to light being reflected? Why doesn't everything that isn't absorbed get transmitted? Does it get interact with molecules and get absorbed but re-emitted in other directions?

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    Richard Jones

    I know its called Journey to the MicroCOSMOS but does anyone else think Hank's channeling a bit of Carl Sagan for these vids?

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    judy churley

    Wait; if the blue light, as well as the green of chlorophyll are reflected, rather than absorbed, isn't the animal or plant getting LESS energy?

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    Liz Cooper-Williams

    I love the way you make perfect sense of the chromatic effects of light on these organisms relative to our own limited perception of wavelengths. I wonder how they would look under UV. So glad you make these wonderful videos – thank-you, thank-you, thank-you!

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    King Ronin

    I can't help but to mention that green is the color plants don't use, since it's reflected, they use all other wavelengths. Some speculate that since our sun is strongest in the green spectrum, they use all other wavelengths to not be over saturated, but cyanobacteria that are more blue than green may be trying to use the green more, instead of reflecting it. Just a thought.

  42. Post
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    Greg Hartwick

    “Wonderful things”! I’d love you to mention the type of illumination used. As an old microscopist, I love to know (I can guess). Do you sometimes us vital dyes to enhance contrast?

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    Elijah Kulpinski

    I love this channel so much, they inspired me to get my own microscope and view various sources of pond water. I couldn't identify the synura and gave up until this video!!

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    poppedweasel

    The cyst remains "valiant" against chemicals and UV etc. Whoever writes the scripts deserves a mention. What excellent use of English.

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    KohuGaly

    Is it just coincidence or you follow university curriculum when publishing these episodes? The organisms shown and explained in each new video match what we study that week or previous week.

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    what the

    I don't get it. If it is green because the rest of the spectrum is absorbed, how can something that uses more of the spectrum reflect blue as well as the green. Maybe I have my additive and subtractive colors mixed up but I thought, with our RGB eyes, seeing an object as cyan means more frequencies were reflected. Now I need to go find a video on pigments, how does mixing blue and yellow paints translate to green in our eyes?

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    Fabrício Lara

    Talking about colour, what are those images with a blue background? The little creatures are shown as green, orange, all kinds of colour, yet the background light appears all blue.

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    Conner Fields

    Is there anything inorganic in the microcismos. I mean chemical elements;Oxygen and Nitrogen, and H2O…but…how do these effect us?

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    Matt Bohnhoff

    My daughter got a digital microscope for her birthday and, inspired by this channel, we've enjoyed searching for tiny life in samples from our chickens' water bowl (which is filthy). Today we found rotifers (I think).

    It would be a very different video but would you consider giving us a behind the scenes look? The equipment that you use, how to collect specimens from soil vs water, how to prepare a slide, etc?

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    Coacervate Droplet

    One of the most common pigment types in higher plants are anthocyanin ("flower color). I wonder if there be any known microbes that also contain these antioxidant molecules?

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    Kitarra Chaosweaver

    Three times I tried to listen to this video and 2 of those times I fell asleep. Thanks Hank! Of the three new pilots I like Hashed out and History Pop. The Stories retold is a little lackluster. How do we vote?

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    Clover HighFive

    This channel is so important. Don't ask me why I wind down listening to what is basically a documentary, but a drink and Microcosmos video and I'm so softened down I can sleep. And dream sweet watery dreams of beautiful shapes and colours. The world is magnificent.

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    shella bella

    I would really love see some of the process of collecting these microbes. Something like when you go out to collect water and how you process it to find the microbes in the microscope

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    Catherine Hearse

    Love this series. It's, awe inspiring, the footage is exquisite and the commentary wonderfully informative and beautifully written. Thank you all very much.

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    Sun Storm

    So what do you do with these organisms after you film them? Do you just wipe them away & kill them after they’ve divulged such beauty & insight? 🤨

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    Siebe Rozendal

    Really enjoying these videos and the amazingly calm voice-overs.

    It also got me thinking: micro-organisms haven't evolved to be appreciated by us. But haven't we evolved to appreciate particular patterns; namely: natural patterns, which are often fractal? I'm not sure why we enjoy these patterns, but we seem to enjoy them a lot.

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