Life is beautiful on all scales, from large to small. Sometimes that splendor is hidden under literal scales.
A mesmerizing look 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 Competition. The winning image, composed of hundreds of images captured over two days with a confocal microscope, was created by researchers from the University of Geneva, 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 structures with collagen 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.
Parts of bones that are beginning to calcify shine the brightest in the image, Timin says. Tendons and ligaments in development stretch like orange branches. Blood cells cluster or line up in new blood vessels at the ends of the gecko’s digits.
The image emphasizes beauty in all shapes and sizes, says Milinkovitch. The picture is “beautiful as a hand, you can see this beautiful pattern 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 coming from the tendons. Then you zoom in, and you 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 competition were announced 11 October. Here are some of our other favorites.
From a distance, this photo resembles a bunch of grapes. But each sphere is a sprawling clump of cells in breast tissue.
Cancer immunologist Caleb Dawson of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Parkville, Australia, took thousands of pictures using a confocal microscope to view tiny, muscle-like cells that wrap around milk-producing spheres. He used dyes and antibodies to highlight the cells yellow and magenta in this second-place winning image.
The cells respond to the hormone oxytocin, Dawson says. Oxytocin is released during breastfeeding and helps to squeeze the milk from the bulbs, the alveoli. Such images of breast tissue that are breastfeeding could help researchers figure out how immune cells keep the breast tissue and the babies it can nourish healthy.
Ole Bielfeldt had to be quick to catch the last gasp of a extinguished candle.
Candle wax is made of hydrogen and carbon atoms, which largely turn into carbon dioxide when lit in a fire. But not all of those hydrocarbons burn, instead they accumulate as soot on surfaces near the candle. “When the flame goes out, the glowing wick still has enough heat to break down the wax molecules for a while, but not enough to burn the carbon,” says Bielfeldt, a photographer in Cologne, Germany. “So you get a smoke trail until it cools down.”
Using a fast shutter speed and a bright LED light, Bielfeldt managed to capture those unburnt carbon particles floating away, taking sixth place.
Iridescent slime mold
Hidden on leaves and rotting logs in damp forests are tiny works of art like this one Lamproderma slime fungi.
In the dappled sun of an October day, San Anselmo, California, photographer Alison Pollack spotted a glittering leaf while digging through a pile of leaves. After taking the sheet home and looking through a microscope, she was fixated by the crinkled heads and iridescence of slime mold. About 40 hours of work and 147 combined images later, Pollack had captured a striking snapshot that she likes to anthropomorphize as a nurturing relationship: parent and child, two lovers, or brother and sister. The photo took fifth place in the competition.
Most slime molds have smooth heads, which release spores into the environment to reproduce. This pair may have dried up too quickly, stunting their development and making their heads wrinkly, Pollack says. But that’s OK, “because to me the texture is just gorgeous.”
A deadly predator
All are afraid of the predatory tiger beetle, especially this poor fly.
Murat Öztürk of Ankara, Turkey, took 10th place in this year’s competition with an amazing — and unnerving — snapshot of a tiger beetle using its jaws to crush a fly with its eyes.
tiger beetles (Cicindelinae) sprint after their prey so fast that the insects become temporarily blind. The photographed beetle would have stopped several times to orient itself to find out where the fly was, and would eventually have snatched its meal. Thanks to the beetle’s strong and sharp jaws, “the survivability of the creatures caught by this insect is very low,” says Öztürk.
Coral close up
In Opal Reef off the coast of Australia, some cauliflower coral (Pocillopora verrucosa) polyps appear green. But the same organism is transformed when viewed under a microscope in the lab.
To reveal the polyp’s individual cells, marine scientist Brett Lewis of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, pieced together more than 60 images captured in 36 hours. The coral naturally fluoresces a mishmash of blue, purple and pink when exposed to different wavelengths of light. Algae living in the polyp appear orange or pink, while the tissues of the coral shimmer blue. The statue won 12th place in the competition.
An astonishing aspect of the photo, Lewis says, is that in some areas, algae cells shine through a light blue haze. That’s because coral tissue is transparent; algae give coral its color.
A look inside coral could help scientists understand its biology, Lewis says. For example, his work aims to find out how young polyps build a strong base when they attach to a surface — an important step in building or restoring coral reefs.