Daily Picture Show

Time For Your Close-Up: Science Meets Art In Photomicrography

Today we will be looking at pictures of fleas, rat eyes, cancer and soy sauce. And believe it or not, they are beautiful — at least, they are once they're stained with fluorescent dyes and magnified a few dozen times.

The top 20 winners of the 2010 Nikon Small World photomicrography contest were recently announced. Yes, photomicrography, or pictures of small things, taken through a microscope. The photographic equipment ranges from eBay microscopes to million-dollar high-tech imaging machines at research institutions. And not all contestants were scientists. The image-maker behind the fourth-place photo of a wasp nest is an Italian lawyer.

  • 1st Place: Jonas KingMosquito heart, 100x
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    1st Place: Jonas KingMosquito heart, 100x
    Vanderbilt University, Department of Biological Sciences, Nashville, Tenn./Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 2nd Place: Dr. Hideo Otsuna5-day-old zebra fish head, 20x
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    2nd Place: Dr. Hideo Otsuna5-day-old zebra fish head, 20x
    University of Utah Medical Center, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Salt Lake City/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 3rd Place: Oliver BraubachZebra fish olfactory bulbs, 250x
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    3rd Place: Oliver BraubachZebra fish olfactory bulbs, 250x
    Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 4th Place: Riccardo TaiariolWasp nest, 10x
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    4th Place: Riccardo TaiariolWasp nest, 10x
    La Spezia, Italy/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 5th Place, Viktor SykoraBird of paradise seed, 10x
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    5th Place, Viktor SykoraBird of paradise seed, 10x
    Institute of Pathophysiology, First Medical Faculty, Charles University, Prague/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 6th Place: Dr. John HuismanRed seaweed, 40x
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    6th Place: Dr. John HuismanRed seaweed, 40x
    Murdoch University, School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology, Murdoch, Western Australia/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 7th Place: Yongli ShanEndothelial cell attached to synthetic microfibers, stained with microtubules, F-actin and nuclei, 2500x
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    7th Place: Yongli ShanEndothelial cell attached to synthetic microfibers, stained with microtubules, F-actin and nuclei, 2500x
    University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 8th Place: Honorio Cocera-La ParraCacoxenite (mineral), 18x
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    8th Place: Honorio Cocera-La ParraCacoxenite (mineral), 18x
    Geology Museum, University of Valencia, Spain/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 9th Place: Dr. Duane HarlandFlea, 20x
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    9th Place: Dr. Duane HarlandFlea, 20x
    AgResearch Ltd., Lincoln, New Zealand/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 10th Place: Yanping WangCrystallized soy sauce, 16x
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    10th Place: Yanping WangCrystallized soy sauce, 16x
    Beijing Planetarium, China/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 11th Place: Dr. Paul D. AndrewsCancer cells, 100x
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    11th Place: Dr. Paul D. AndrewsCancer cells, 100x
    University of Dundee, Scotland/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 12th Place: Dr. Gregory RouseJuvenile bivalve mollusk, 10x
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    12th Place: Dr. Gregory RouseJuvenile bivalve mollusk, 10x
    Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, Calif./Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 13th Place: James NicholsonMushroom coral, 166x
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    13th Place: James NicholsonMushroom coral, 166x
    Coral Culture and Collaborative Research Facility, Charleston, S.C./Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 14th Place: Dr. Stephen LowrySpiral vessels from banana plant stem, 23x
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    14th Place: Dr. Stephen LowrySpiral vessels from banana plant stem, 23x
    University of Ulster, Portstewart, U.K./Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 15th Place: Dr. Ralf WagnerDivaricatic acid from lichen, recrystallized from acetone, 10x
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    15th Place: Dr. Ralf WagnerDivaricatic acid from lichen, recrystallized from acetone, 10x
    Dusseldorf, Germany/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 16th Place: Dr. Robert Markus"Four o'clock flower" stigma with pollen, 100x
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    16th Place: Dr. Robert Markus"Four o'clock flower" stigma with pollen, 100x
    Institute of Genetics, Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Szeged, Hungary/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 17th Place: Charles KrebsWasp eye and antenna base, 40x
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    17th Place: Charles KrebsWasp eye and antenna base, 40x
    Charles Krebs Photography, Issaquah, Wash./Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 18th Place: Gerd GuentherSoap film, 150x
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    18th Place: Gerd GuentherSoap film, 150x
    Dusseldorf, Germany/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 19th Place: Cameron JohnsonRat retina outlining the retinal vessel network, 100x
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    19th Place: Cameron JohnsonRat retina outlining the retinal vessel network, 100x
    University of Auckland, New Zealand/Courtesy of Nikon Small World
  • 20th Place: Dr. John HartCrystallized melt of sulfur and acetanilide, 10x
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    20th Place: Dr. John HartCrystallized melt of sulfur and acetanilide, 10x
    Hart3D Films and Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, University of Colorado, Boulder/Courtesy of Nikon Small World

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Dr. Alison North, who runs the Bio-Imaging Resource Center at Rockefeller University, was one of the judges who whittled a pool of 2,000 entries down to 20. She says the discussion over the images became quite lively during the process, and that there was often a debate between the two scientists and the two journalists who made up the judging panel. "We couldn't help being biased knowing which images were technically very difficult to make," she says.

North likes the first-place photo of a mosquito heart because of the image quality and technical sophistication — but also because it is geometrically striking and almost looks like it could be the Brooklyn Bridge.

That said, some photos were appealing for very simple reasons. Take a look at the fifth-place winning photo of a seed, one of North's favorites. "How do you look at that and not burst out laughing?" she says. "It looks like a potato head with a carrot-top hairdo!"

And the reasons the judges liked the 10th-place winning image of crystallized soy sauce had very little to do with technique. North says they were taken with "how Chinese it was.": the colors of the flag and how the crystallization patterns echo the forms of Chinese characters. She was amused to discover later that the photomicographer, Yanping Wang, chose this particular image not for those reasons but because it looked like a smiley face.

To look at more tiny things under microscopes, check out the bee's knees.

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