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The World’s Tiniest Wonders, Revealed Through Photomicrography

Under a microscope, even a toothbrush can be a work of art.

Nsutite and cacoxenite minerals (Image of Distinction).
Nsutite and cacoxenite minerals (Image of Distinction). Emilio Carabajal Márquez, Madrid, Spain

Since 1975, Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition has attracted photographers and scientists interested in showcasing miniscule wonders. This year’s winning entries, drawn from the work of more than 2,000 participants in 88 countries, reveal that the very, very tiny can still have a startlingly large visual impact.

A photomicrograph—any image taken through a microscope—can serve both scientific and artistic purposes. This year’s winner, from The Netherlands’ Cancer Institute, and shows human skin cells magnified 40x (objective lens magnification).* It resembles a net of bright yellow fibers surrounded by iridescent blue deposits, in the shape of an unblinking eye. For the scientists that captured the image, it also shows an excess of keratin (the yellow strands), a protein that can be associated with certain cancers. As with the images in the Art of Neuroscience—a similar competition—these photos provide visual form to things that cannot normally be seen.

Immortalized human skin cells (HaCaT keratinocytes) expressing fluorescently tagged keratin (1st Place).
Immortalized human skin cells (HaCaT keratinocytes) expressing fluorescently tagged keratin (1st Place). Dr. Bram van den Broek, Andriy Volkov, Dr. Kees Jalink, Dr. Reinhard Windoffer & Dr. Nicole Schwarz, Netherlands Cancer Institute

The images in the competition also reveal surprising elements of nature. With a lens magnification of 20x, the eye of a daddy longlegs looks like a gray-brown pearl embedded in mottled, scaly skin. At 40x, a bee’s respiratory system resembles a gnarled tree trunk. Under a 200x magnification, a tapeworm’s face takes on the dimensions and aspect of a deep-sea fish.

But the photomicrographs needn’t feature living subjects. One of the most compelling—and strangely organic–images is of a structures of minerals nsutite and cacoxenite, which look like a cluster of eyeballs in a cave-like garden. It’s reminiscent of both Salvador Dalí’s melting clockfaces and algohorror—digital art created by algorithms. Another is a simple interdental brush, photographed to resemble an alien orchard.

Images from this year’s competition will be featured in a traveling exhibition, and entries are already being accepted for the 2018 contest. Atlas Obscura has a selection of this year’s best.

Living <em>Volvox</em> algae releasing its daughter colonies (3rd Place).
Living Volvox algae releasing its daughter colonies (3rd Place). Jean-Marc Babalian, Nantes France
<em>Opiliones</em> (daddy longlegs) eye (12th Place).
Opiliones (daddy longlegs) eye (12th Place). Charles Krebs Photography, Issaquah, Washington.
Human tongue blood vessels injected with lead chromate (Honorable Mention).
Human tongue blood vessels injected with lead chromate (Honorable Mention). Frank Reiser, Nassau Community College New York
<em>Taenia solium</em> (tapeworm) everted scolex, or head (4th Place).
Taenia solium (tapeworm) everted scolex, or head (4th Place). Teresa Zgoda, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)
Interdental brush (Image of Distinction).
Interdental brush (Image of Distinction). Dr. Haris Antonopoulos, Athens, Greece
Respiratory tubes of <em>Apis mellifera</em>, a bee (Image of Distinction).
Respiratory tubes of Apis mellifera, a bee (Image of Distinction). Dr. Lorenzo Domenis, Reference Centre for Wildlife Diseases, Aosta, Italy
<em>Synapta</em> (sea cucumber) skin (18th Place).
Synapta (sea cucumber) skin (18th Place). Christian Gautier Biosphoto, France
<em>Parus major</em> (great tit) down feather (16th Place).
Parus major (great tit) down feather (16th Place). Marek Miś Photography, Poland
Simple Eyes of <em>Ectemnius</em> (digger wasp) with condensation (Image of Distinction).
Simple Eyes of Ectemnius (digger wasp) with condensation (Image of Distinction). Laurie Knight, UK
Individually labeled axons in an embryonic chick ciliary ganglion, (7th Place).
Individually labeled axons in an embryonic chick ciliary ganglion, (7th Place). Dr. Ryo Egawa, Nagoya University

* Update: This article has been updated to clarify that the magnifications listed in the story represent objective lens magnification.