Watch Microorganisms Play 'Pac-Man' for Science

The maze-like maps of 'Pac-Man' capture microorganism habitats better than traditional Petri dishes.

Jul 3 2016, 6:00pm

I still remember marveling when I was a kid at the LCD watches in the 1980s that let you play Pac-Man—at the time, I couldn't imagine anything smaller was possible. But researchers at the University College of Southeast Norway have far surpassed that and even injected the "gameplay" with real life-or-death stakes. Using a fluid-filled Pac-Man-style labyrinth measuring no more than one millimeter across, they've been letting loose a bunch of microorganisms and studying them as they chase each other down.

According to a summary of the project from the college, the image above shows ciliates and single-celled euglena "acting" as Pac-Man by avoiding the multicellular rotifers that feed off of them. But even though filmmaker Adam Bartley helped the the team mimic the look of '80s Pac-Man with some snazzy blue top-light and len-flare effects, there's actually a valid scientific reason for what's going on.

According to professor Erik Andrew Johannessen of the school's department of micro- and nanosystem technology, the setup overcomes one of the big problems of studying microorganisms in Petri dishes. Typically, the tiny creatures are all just jumbled on top of each other, which creates a problem with the severely limited depth of field in light microscopy. With these flatter "micromazes," though, researchers can study the organisms in an environment that reasonably mimics the system of microscopic canals and similar structures found in their natural habitats like peat or moss. And by making the maze reminiscent of the mazes from Pac-Man, the team felt they could better communicate their findings to the wider public.

The project has been going on for around half a year now, and eventually Johannessen hopes to implement some form of digital tracking for the organisms to better explain their behavior.