It's time for that annual celebration of Lilliputian loveliness: The Nikon Small World contest for photomicrographers has announced its winners. Here we present our favorite images from the top 20, along with the interviews we conducted with many of these meticulous photographers.
Jonas KingVanderbilt University, Department of Biological Sciences Nashville, Tennessee
This winning image in the Nikon Small World competition shows a mosquito heart and its supporting muscles in extreme close-up. King explained to DISCOVER exactly what his image shows: "The green structures are the muscles and the blue dots are cell nuclei. The narrow tube running from left to right is the actual heart of the mosquito and the fan shaped structures are called alary muscles."
King's images of the mosquito heart's structure help researchers understand how these disease-bearing pests transport nutrients, hormones, and even pathogens such as malaria through their bodies; his team has published their findings in The Journal of Experimental Biology and PLoS ONE.
King says he has always taken an interest in art and music, and says he gravitated to a field of science that included artistic elements. This mosquito heart photo certainly brings his enthusiasms together. "I think what makes this photo so cool to me is the shocking amount of symmetry and delicate details of the heart's musculature," he says.
Dr. Hideo OtsunaUniversity of Utah Medical Center, Department of Neurobiology and AnatomySalt Lake City, Utah
Otsuna explains that this dorsal view of a 5-day-old zebrafish head shows tissue stained in blue, including the eyes, olfactory pits, forebrain, and midbrain. Green staining shows the neurons in the olfactory pits, forebrain, and elsewhere, while red shows retinal ganglion cells in the eyes and some midbrain neurons.
Otsuna makes such images in the course of his research. "I am making a 3D gene expression database in zebrafish head," he says, "this picture will go into a future database for NIH." Otsuna says he's a kind of imaging scientist: "Not perfectly artist and not perfectly biologist."
Charles KrebsCharles Krebs Photography Issaquah, Washington
Krebs has been a full-time photographer for more than 30 years, but began focusing on photomicrography about 5 years ago. He told DISCOVER that this work brings a special reward.
"The most compelling aspect of this type of photography is that it rekindles a "child-like" sense of discovery and fascination since it offers many subjects that I have never seen before, or have never observed closely enough to comprehend the infinite detail in nature. Inevitably this leads to a greater appreciation and sense of awe for the complexity and variety of life that literally surrounds us, but normally goes unnoticed."
He was drawn to the striking geometry and deep colors of this wasp's compound eye, but photographing it was no easy task. Because high magnification photographs provide little depth-of-field, Krebs took 70 successive photos with slightly different focus locations. Then the in-focus sections from each of the 70 photos were combined to create this single image.
Gerd Guenther Düsseldorf, NRW, Germany
To grab this radiant image Guenther used a specimen carrier with a hole, which the soap film stretched across. With this set-up he could capture the colorful displays caused by light hitting both the upper and lower sides of the film, which are separated by a thin layer of water. Explains Guenther: "If incident light falls to the film it is reflected partially on the upper and lower side of the film, and the colours come from the interfering light paths. The different colours only are determined by the thickness of the film." Photographing soap film is a challenge, he says, because the colors and structures are constantly shifting--as seen in this video he made.
Guenther isn't a trained scientist, rather he's an organic farmer who considers photography a "passionate hobby"--he says he takes more than 2,000 photomicrographs each year.
Dr. John Hart Hart3D Films and Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science University of Colorado, Boulder Boulder, Colorado
So what exactly are you looking at in this nifty image? Hart explains: "When a multicomponent mixture crystallizes upon cooling, it's often a competition or collision between two or more different structures. Here the yellow 'peninsula' and the multitude of spheres are sulphur, while the greenish fins and leaves are acetalinide. The sulpher structures formed first, then the leafy fins grew around and up against them."
This image was made primarily for its aesthetic value, Hart says, though the fractal patterns are related to his research on atmospheric and oceanic turbulence and chaotic dynamics. Having recently retired from teaching atmospheric science, Hart now devotes himself to 3D art, including 3D film-making and 3D microscopy.
Oliver Braubach Department of Physiology & Biophysics, Dalhousie University Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
This image shows a zebrafish's pair of olfactory bulbs, which are located at the front of the brain and receive information from sensory cells in the nostrils. Braubach explained the image in more detail to DISCOVER: "The white elements in the picture are the axons from the olfactory sensory cells and they carry information about different molecular components of odors. The red parts are the synaptic terminals that are located inside of these axons and these terminals are the cellular sites at which neural information (i.e., action potentials or electric signals) are converted into a chemical signal which then moves over to another neuron and activates it."
Braubach created this image while working on network maps of the vertebrate olfactory system. He's fascinated by the sophistication of this system. When we smell something (he uses a BLT sandwich as a mouthwatering example), the components of the smell are processed by distinct sets of sensory neurons, and the signal is sent on to specific, dedicated parts of the olfactory bulb. Braubach is studying "how this system accomplishes such coding, and also how it develops," he says. "Considering how many
thousands of smells surround us and how many of these we are able to discriminate, the olfactory system is truly a remarkable processing system."
Braubach says he considers himself more of an observer and curator of the natural world's wonders than an artist. But he also takes some lovely photographs in his spare time.
Yongli ShanThe University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center Dallas, Texas
Honorio Cocera-La Parra Geology Museum, University of Valencia Benetusser, Valencia, Spain
This image shows a "radial aggregate" of tiny cacoxenite crystals on a quartz matrix. Cacoxenite is a rare iron phosphate; this specimen comes from the Paloma mine, located in the town of Zarza La Mayor, Caceres Province, Spain. Cocera-La Parra took this image as part of a series of photos that were meant to show the types of minerals found in the Paloma Mine.
Cocera-La Parra says that series can be found on a blog that "is a part of the MTI Project--Mineralogía Topográfica Ibérica (Iberian Topographic Mineralogy). This project aims to create awareness among professionals and the general public of the rich mineralogical diversity that exists in my country, Spain. It seeks to become the most complete online resource on our mining history and our mineralogical heritage."
Dr. Duane HarlandAgResearch Ltd. Lincoln, New Zealand
Yanping Wang Beijing Planetarium Beijing, China
Wang says she first began taking photomicrographs of snowflakes, and a hobby grew from there when she realized how many fascinating structures she could find under the microscope. At her work she deals with the vast expanses of space--she's a screenwriter for the Beijing Planetarium--but she keeps returning to the small.
Wang has taken many pictures of crystals that show up in our daily lives, like salt and vinegar. "Crystallized soy sauce is the one that give us a pleasant surprise," Wang says. "The shape of its crystal have a great variety, depending on the size and density of the droplet. The picture I sent to Nikon Small World is the most interesting one. As you can see, it looks like human face. I didn't expect this interesting structure before we took photos."
Dr. Paul D. AndrewsUniversity of DundeeDundee, Scotland
Andrews captured these HeLa cells, part of the immortal cell line made famous by Rebecca Skloot's best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. These particular cells are in the act of dividing, Andrews told DISCOVER:
"The likelihood is that they are themselves the progeny of a cell division at that very spot 18 or more hours earlier. The stage of the cell division process you see is called cytokinesis where literally cells move apart and split to become 2 separate entities. This is achieved by bundling the internal structures and pinching the middle (think squeezing a balloon). Eventually only when the ends are sealed does the cell severs the middle bit."
Andrews made this image in the course of his research into a protein that is linked to cancer. The signalling protein he was studying is shown in green fluorescent.
Dr. Stephen Lowry University of Ulster Portstewart, Co. Londonderry, UK
"Spiral vessels," Lowry told DISCOVER, "are found in most flowering plants. They may be concerned with water or air movement within the plant, but information about their exact function is still vague. Victorian microscopists were particularly keen on observing spiral vessels from rhubarb, but I think that this less common example of a spiral vessel from banana stem is more attractive."
Lowry recently put together an exhibition of images produced from Victorian microscope slides using polarized light microscopy. He used that same technique to produce this image of a banana plant's spiral vessels. He likes this image, he says, because "it successfully captured the 3-dimentional structure of the vessel, which looks like a ribbon wrapped around an invisible pole."
Dr. Ralf Wagner Düsseldorf, Germany