Unraveled nerves and mesmerizing caffeine crystals: 10 sensational glimpses of the microscopic realm

Photos from the Nikon Small World competition reveal a world that appears unreal.
A fluorescent microscopic image, magnified 20 times, of a rodent nerve.
Rodent optic nerve head showing astrocytes (yellow), contractile proteins (red) and retinal vasculature (green). Hassanain Qambari & Jayden Dickson/Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition

For nearly half a century, Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competition has celebrated the beauty captured by extreme magnification. This year, the photomicrography contest was stacked: a panel of journalists and scientists selected winners from 1,900 entries submitted by researchers and photographers in 72 countries. Subjects as diverse as mutant fish, chemical reactions, and a speck of space rock became works of art when seen really, really up close.

Above, in first place, is a rodent’s optic nerve head. Blood vessels, each only 110 microns in diameter, radiate outward like the fizzing arms of a firework. The yellow star-like shapes surrounding the vessels are astrocytes, cellular helpers that maintain neuronal systems. Vision researchers at the Lions Eye Institute in Perth, Australia—Hassanain Qambari, assisted by Jayden Dickson—imaged the optic disc at 20x magnification as part of a study of diabetic retinopathy; this condition can cause blindness in people with diabetes.

“The visual system is a complex and highly specialized organ, with even relatively minor perturbations to the retinal circulation able to cause devastating vision loss,” Qambari said in a news release. “I entered the competition as a way to showcase the complexity of retinal microcirculation.” Below are other top photos, and you can see even more at Nikon’s Small World site.

A zebrafish head magnified 4x with purple and blue highlights.
20th place. Adult transgenic zebrafish head showing blood vessels (blue), lymphatic vessels (yellow), and the skin and scales (magenta). Imaged with a 4x objective lens. Daniel Castranova & Dr. Brant Weinstein/Nikon Small World Competition
A close-up of a match igniting.
2nd place. Matchstick igniting by the friction surface of the box. Imaged with a 2.5x objective lens. Ole Bielfeldt/Nikon Small World competition
Caffeine crystals under 25x magnification.
8th place. Caffeine crystals under 25x objective lens magnification. Stefan Eberhard/Nikon Small World Competition

[Related: 15 remarkable JWST images that reveal the wonders of our vast universe]

A rainbow of defensive hairs on a plant leaf.
5th place. Auto-fluorescing defensive hairs covering the leaf surface of the Russian olive, Eleagnus angustifolia, exposed to UV light. Imaged with 10x magnification. David Maitland/Nikon Small World competition
A black micrometeorite on a golden metal mesh.
18th place. A cryptocrystalline micrometeorite resting on a #80 testing sieve. Imaged with a 20x objective lens. Scott Peterson/Nikon Small World competition
9th place. Cytoskeleton of a dividing myoblast highlighting the cellular components tubulin (cyan), F-actin (orange) and nucleus (magenta), magnified 63x. Vaibhav Deshmukh/Nikon Small World competition
Blue wave-like folds of a sugar syrup.
11th place. Crystallized sugar syrup in polarized light, seen via a 25x lens. Diego García/Nikon Small World competition
7th place. A mouse embryo imaged with 4x objective lens magnification. Grigorii Timin & Michel Milinkovitch/Nikon Small World Competition
A spider fang, really zoomed in.
4th place. Venomous fangs of a small tarantula seen using 10x magnification. John-Oliver Dum/Nikon Small World competition