Life is beautiful on all scales, from big to small. Sometimes that splendor is hidden under literal scales.
A fascinating peek beneath the developing scales on the hand of an embryonic Madagascar giant day gecko (Phelsuma grandis) won first place in the 2022 Nikon Small World Photomicrography Contest. The winning image, stitched together from hundreds of images taken over two days with a confocal microscope, was created by University of Geneva researchers Grigorii Timin and Michel Milinkovitch. The couple studies the genetics and physics of embryonic development.
The hand is artificially colored to show budding nerves in cyan and collagen-containing structures in a range of oranges and yellows. Collagen is a building block of life, says Milinkovitch. Knowing where collagen is can help researchers better understand how bodies and tissues develop.
The parts of the bones that have started to calcify shine brightest in the image, says Timin. Developing tendons and ligaments stretch like orange tree branches. The blood cells form clumps or line up inside new blood vessels on the tips of the lizard’s fingers.
The image brings out the beauty of all sizes, says Milinkovitch. The snapshot is “beautiful like a hand, you see this beautiful drawing of the fingers. Then you zoom in, you see the spongy bones. And you zoom in, you see the tendons. And you zoom in, and you see the fibers that are from the tendons. Then you zoom in and see the blood cells.”
The gecko photo is one of 92 incredible images recognized in this year’s competition. The winners of the 48th annual contest were announced October 12 °. These are some of our other favorites.
Do you have milk?
From a distance, this photograph may look like a bunch of grapes. But each orb is a large group of cells within the breast tissue.
Cancer immunologist Caleb Dawson of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Parkville, Australia, took thousands of images using a confocal microscope to see tiny, muscle-like cells encasing milk-producing spheres. He used dyes and antibodies to label cells yellow and magenta in this second-place winning image.
The cells respond to the hormone oxytocin, says Dawson. Oxytocin is released during lactation and helps move milk out of the spheres, called alveoli. These images of lactating breast tissue may help researchers discover how immune cells keep breast tissue healthy and the babies it can feed.
Ole Bielfeldt had to be quick to capture the last gasp of an extinguished candle.
Candle wax is made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms, which convert primarily to carbon dioxide when set on fire. But not all of those hydrocarbons burn, they accumulate as soot on surfaces near the candle. “When the flame goes out, the glowing wick has enough heat to break down the wax molecules for a while, but not enough to burn the carbon,” says Bielfeldt, a photographer from Cologne, Germany. “So you get a smoke trail until it cools down.”
Using a fast shutter speed and bright LED light, Bielfeldt managed to capture those receding unburnt carbon particles, taking sixth place.
iridescent slime mold
Hidden in decaying leaves and logs in humid forests are tiny works of art like these lamproderma slime molds.
In the dappled sun of an October day, photographer Alison Pollack from San Anselmo, California spotted a shiny leaf while digging through a pile of leaves. After taking the leaf home and looking through a microscope, she was transfixed by the shriveled heads and iridescence of slime mold. Some 40 hours of work and 147 combined images later, Pollack captured a stunning snapshot that she likes to anthropomorphize as a nurturing relationship: father and son, two lovers, or brother and sister. The photo took fifth place in the contest.
Most slime molds have smooth heads that release spores into the environment to reproduce. This pair may have dried out too quickly, stunting their development and leaving their heads shriveled, says Pollack. But that’s okay, “because the texture to me is just beautiful.”
a deadly predator
Everyone fears the predatory tiger beetle, especially this poor fly.
Murat Öztürk from Ankara, Turkey, took 10th place in this year’s competition with an astonishing and puzzling shot of a tiger beetle using its mandibles to swat a fly by the eyes.
tiger beetles (Cicindelinae) run after their prey so fast that the insects go temporarily blind. The photographed beetle would have stopped several times to get its bearings and find out where the fly was, and finally snatched its food. Thanks to the beetle’s strong, sharp jaws, “the chances of survival of creatures trapped by this insect are very low,” says Öztürk.
At Opal Reef off the coast of Australia, some cauliflower corals (Pocillopora verrucosa) polyps appear green. But the same organism transforms when viewed under a microscope in the laboratory.
To reveal the individual cells of the polyp, marine scientist Brett Lewis of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, stitched together more than 60 images taken over 36 hours. Coral naturally fluoresces in a mixture of blues, purples, and pinks when exposed to different wavelengths of light. The algae that live inside the polyp appear orange or pink, while the coral tissues glow blue. The image won 12th place in the competition.
One surprising thing about the photo, Lewis says, is that in some areas, the algae cells glow through a light blue haze. That’s because coral tissue is transparent; the algae give the coral its color.
Glimpses into the coral’s internal structures can help scientists understand its biology, says Lewis. His work, for example, aims to discover how young polyps build strong foundations when they attach to a surface, an important step in building or restoring coral reefs.