Gallery: This Year’s Most Amazing Microscopic Photography

Winners of the Nikon's annual Small World competition represent the best in through-the-microscope photography

Nikon’s annual Small World Competition began in 1974 to showcase the best microscope-aided photography. The competition attracts a fascinating variety of subjects, photographed using a range of microscopy techniques. Many of the images are scientifically important, but all are aesthetically stunning. This year’s 137 winners have been announced, and we’ve got them all here for you.

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1st Place: Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) anther (20x)

This strangely glowing, somewhat translucent shot captures the anther of a thale cress, an organism whose genome was fully sequenced in 2000. According to photographer and research scientist Dr. Heiti Paves, the photo has no scientific significance—it just happened to be the most artistic in his pile of thousands. Still, the thale cress is known to be a model organism in plant biology.

2nd place: Sonchus asper (spiny sowthistle) flower stem section (150x)

Who knew a plant with small yellow flowers, spiny leaves and the potential to reach six feet in height could make for such a pretty picture? Cut the stem of this invasive weed and a milky sap will flow out, but you won’t find that in the part pictured here. Although the dandelion-like blossoms are yellow, the stem boasts a range of colors hidden to the naked eye.

3rd place: Wrinkled photoresist (200x)

When objects like circuits are going to be chemically etched, they are often first covered with photoresist. Photographer Dr. Pedro-Barrios Perez inspects the photomechanical substance to make sure it will work when it goes to production. So why did he submit this picture? “It looks like the sun warming up the earth with its mighty energy waves,” he says. Interesting, because photoresist sometimes wrinkles when exposed to heat.

4th Place: Anglerfish ovary (4x)

This cross-section of an anglerfish’s ovary is reminiscent of another sea creature—the nautilus. Its otherwise-dull spirally composition caught James Hayden’s eye, so he used fluorescent hematoxylin and Eosin stains to illuminate the different details of the image. “I was trying to create an image that sharply defined the boundaries of the different parts of the specimen, so that the image could actually be used to demonstrate the morphology of the ovary and eggs,” he says.

5th Place: Oral surface of a young seastar (40x)

This cute little guy is a juvenile seastar who just went through metamorphosis. It was likely accidentally caught by researchers netting plankton, and happened to transform in captivity. In the wild, the free-roaming larva’s maturation would have necessitated a move to the bottom of the sea where it would have spent the rest of its life.

6th Place: Discus fish scales (20x)

Originating in the Amazon, the discus fish is becoming an increasingly popular aquarium fish due to the ease of its care. Known for their striking colors, discus are considered to fall into one of three species – green, red or blue/brown. Hormones and food coloring are sometimes used by sellers to enhance the color of these fish. Not only will these dyes fade over time, they can also do serious harm to the fish.

7th Place: Hair-like trichomes on Thunbergia alata (Black-eyed Susan vine) (450x)

The friendly black-eyed Susan vine can be found in late summer and fall gardens all across America. This picture provides a look at its trichomes, hair-like epidermal cells reflect solar radiation, reducing internal temperatures and a plant’s water loss. Interestingly, THC production takes place in the cannabis plant’s trichomes. Although Thunbergia alatas don’t offer that, they still look pretty darn cool.

8th Place: Cotton fibers stained with berberine sulphate and color depth shaded (200x)

These candy-colored cotton strands not only look pretty—they serve a purpose, too! Dr. Lloyd Donaldson snapped this shot of the stringy bits for a book on fiber structures. The use of confocal microscopy makes it possible to render 3-D images of tiny structures and then measure the diameter, for example, each thread.

9th Place: Olivine inclusions in gabbro (magmatic rock) (5x)

Gabbro is an intrusive igneous rock that forms in molten hot magma chambers far below the earth’s surface. Humans can see its coarse grains, usually black, with the naked eye but, in this case, Dr. Bernardo Cesare used a microscope to see even more. He says “an unusual abundance of small inclusions in the larger crystals” of this sample give it the shocking colors you see here.

10th Place: Algae and diatoms (10x)

Algae are often thought of as the pesky green gunk covering undisturbed ponds and lakes. What you might not realize, though, is the role algae and diatoms (which are actually oceanic plankton themselves) play in balancing the earth’s climate. History has shown that the two contribute to the removal of billions of tons of carbon dioxide every year. Dr. Arlene Wechezak says she chose this photograph to “bring public awareness of the complexity and beauty of marine organisms.”

11th Place: “Alzheimer” Zebrafish, stained for Tau (red), neurons (green), and pathologic Tau (blue) (10x)

A translucent zebrafish larva showing the nervous system of the fish (green), the expression of the protein Tau (in red), and Alzheimer-like alterations of Tau (in blue). In humans Tau protein aggregates in the brains of Alzheimer patients and plays a major role in the degeneration of brain cells. By bringing Tau into translucent zebrafish larvae, the disease-causing effects of the protein can be studied directly under the microscope.

12th Place: Flow pattern in draining soap film (10x)

This piece of surreal art shows the flow patterns in a thin film of soap. A glass cylinder enclosed the flat soap film and kept it stable so that a close-up photograph could be taken. The striking black pattern is fringed with numerous pearl-like beads, a result of the fluid dynamics of the film.

13th Place: Recrystallized melted mixture of acetanalide, resorcinal and carbon tetrabromide (33x)

Simple chemistry creates an otherworldly structure in this image. An organic solvent, an antiseptic and an outdated painkiller were combined to form this weird and complex crystal, illuminated with polarized light.

14th Place: Lobster egg (3.2x)

Nature’s artistry is on display in this picture of a lobster egg a few days before hatching. The image was taken while scientists measured eye diameter, which is done to predict hatching time. The photography and microscopy may not have been too fancy, but the patterns and colors certainly are.

15th Place: Atherix ibis (fly) aquatic larva (25x)

What seems to be the head of some strange horned creature is actually the back end of a watersnipe fly larva. These weirdly shaped larvae are found in freshwater, and they and other bugs are often good indicators of water quality.

16th Place: Snail eggs (200x)

These symmetric ovals are actually the eggs of a pond snail. Snails deposits their eggs in large jelly-like clumps into the water. This picture shows a close-up of two of these eggs, with embryos developing inside them.

17th Place: Stopwatch (2.5x)

A colorful image showing the inner gears of a pocket stop watch. A confocal microscope, usually used to examine tiny biological materials, was used for this unusual look at the inner workings of the timepiece. This kind of microscopy can show the depth of the stop watch’s various parts.

18th Place: Human skin on fibronectin with growth factor (60x)

This image captures a moment in the life of a human skin cell after it has been stimulated with a soluble growth factor. The cell shape was constrained, and after it was stimulated migratory structures extended from its membrane. The colors indicate proteins responsible for cell movement. By looking at how these proteins co-localize, scientists can understand how, when, and where they interact.

19th Place: Snowflake (40x)

A photograph captures this rare type of snowflake. It only lasted for 2 hours out of three days of snowfall in Beijing, but at least the image endures.

20th Place: Rusted old coin (40x)

The rust and dirt on this old coin transforms into a greenish-brown moonscape under the microscope. Found buried under the sand, the coin may have newfound value as a piece of abstract art.

1st Place, Popular Vote: Fluorescent actin bundles growing from the surface of coated beads (63X)

Honorable Mention: Ciliated protozoa (1700x)

Honorable Mention: Fungal infection of Arabidopsis (flowering plant) root (25x)

Honorable Mention: Rat cerebellum (200x)

Honorable Mention: Whole finch testicle (4x)

Honorable Mention: Fire agate (10x)

Honorable Mention: Aspergillus mold in a microfluidic device (20x)

Honorable Mention: Aspergillus sp. (250x)

Honorable Mention: Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) anther (20x)

Honorable Mention: Radula of Buccinum undatum (sea snail) (100x)

Honorable Mention: Biosensing liquid crystals (20x)

Honorable Mention: Hoya carnosa (wax plant) flower (10x)

Honorable Mention: Pluteus larva of a sea biscuit (echinoderm) (200x)

Honorable Mention: Water droplets ejected from a vibrating glass nozzle (200x)

Honorable Mention: A fruit fly ovariole containing different stages of developing egg chambers (400x)

Honorable Mention: Mosquito larvae (100x)

Eriophorum vaginatum (Tussock cottongrass) corm (10X)

Eriophorum vaginatum (Tussock cottongrass) corm (10X)

Moth proboscis (10X)

2 pinnae of Aspidium Felix (fern) (20X)

Agate – thin polished section (200X)

Branching filamentous diatom colonies with diatom ‘eyes’ (4X)

Patterned expression of wild-type and transgenic Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) embryos (200X)

Soap film (10X)

Dover Sole skin (20X)

Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) leaf epidermis and stomata (plant pores) (20X)

Antique microscope slide featuring Sea Cucumber skin and anchors (7.5X)

Pyroxene and plagioclase (minerals) in granulite (metamorphic rock) (5X)

Neurons extending from human embryonic stem cell spheres (20X)

Grey cast iron (1000X)

Re-crystallized urea

Neuromuscular synapses in a Drosophila larva (200X)

Diatom (480X)

Embryo of guppy fish (40X)

Two Micrasterias sp. (green algae), live specimens (200X)

Two Closterium sp. (algae), live specimens (200X)

Marine diatoms (200X)

Bile duct surrounded by scar tissue in a cirrhotic liver (20X)

Chromosome from Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) salivary glands (1000X)

Benzoic Acid melt crystal (40X)

Benzoic Acid melt crystal (40X)

Echiniscus mediantus (tardigrade, water bear), in various states of movement

Polished grey banded Carnelian (3X)

Section of female Nippostrongylus brasiliensis (nematode) with eggs (200X)

Mouse cranial base (200X)

Human ileum (20X)

A drop of pond water (100X)

Gastric secreting cells of a mouse (40X)

Axonal projections of an ommatidium of Drosophila eye (40X)

Salamander larvae in egg with symbiotic green algae (1X)

Green hydra on surface of spotted salamander egg mass (1X)

Tilia sp. stem (500X)

Silver sand (500X)

Quercus leaf gall formed by a Gall wasp (4X)

Gall formed by Trigonaspis mendesi (4X)

Transverse section of brown algae (40X)

Crystal formed from desiccated phosphate-buffered saline (100X)

Degenerating blue phase II crystals (100X)

Mouse brain pyramidal cells (20X)

100-form exhibition diatom arrangement (200X)

Elmis sp. (beetle) aquatic larva (60X)

Head of Simulidae (fly) aquatic larva (40X)

Natural textures of the SmF phase of 1,4-di-(n-tridecylthophene-2-yl)-benzene (200X)

Dinosaur bone, Jurassic period (15X)

Raindrop on butterfly wing (20X)

Lime tree leaf vessels (30X)

Neuronally differentiated P19 cells (400X)

Photonic crystals prepared from dried colloidal silica (5X)

Salicornia europea (sprout) (20X)

Urea and mannitol (100X)

Stephanoceros fimbriata (rotifer) on a moss leaf (80X)

Chalcedony with quartz in quartzite

Chaetopleura Apiculata (Chiton) radula (100X)

GaAs sample oxidized in water vapor (200X)

Recrystallized melt mix of carbon tetra-bromide and resorcinal (33X)

Forelimb bone from a rat

Distribution of actin (green) & microtubule (red) cytoskeletons in fission yeast during mitosis (160X)

Life cycle of the social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum (100X)

Mouse Purkinje (brain) cells (40X)

Dumbbell sponge spicule from an unidentified sponge (125X)

Lily anther, transverse section, showing pollen sacs (100X)

Lichen (10X)

Notonecta Glauca (Backswimmer aquatic insect) (100X)

Ceratium hirundinella (freshwater dinoflagellate), living specimen (400X)

Filinia terminalis (rotifer) (250X)

Microalgae in silicone matrix (1000X)

Zebrafish embryo, 22 hours post-fertilization, living specimen (40X)

Drosophila melanogaster immune cells (200X)

Three day old zebrafish larva with fluorescently labeled neurons (20X)

Microprocessor with a pollen grain (50X)

Mouse cultured dorsal root ganglion neuron and satellite cells (1200X)

Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog) tadpole (10X)

Ammonium Dichromate, crystallized (160X)

Beer bubbles (160X)

Oenothera biennis (Evening primrose) pollen grains (650X)

Top of metal tufting hook used in a tufting machine to make carpets (5X)

Antique microscope slide featuring arranged diatoms (60X)

Fish scale base, whole mount (125X)

Bundles of quartz fibers with linking bands of Fe-hydroxide (10X)

Dennstaedtia sp. (cup fern) longitudinal rhizome section (10X)

Photonic crystal structure manufactured holographically (100X)

Ventral view of Daphnia pulex (common water flea) (10X)

Pine skin (10X)

Alzheimer Zebrafish, stained for Tau (red), neurons (green), synapses and pathologic Tau (blue) (10X)

Rat kidney epithelial cells on a fibronectin surface pattern (630X)

Giant liposomes of pulmonary surfactant (40X)

Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) stigma (20X)

Section of circuit board (20X)

Mullerian epithelium from human fallopian tube (400X)

Echinometra lucunter (sea urchin), oral view (20X)

Coral, live polyp showing its mouth, glowing tissue and brown tentacles covering the stony skeleton (6X)

Neuropil in a zebrafish epithalamus (40X)

Pinus Ovulate cone mother cell (10X)

Carcinoma cells (40X)

Dried toluidine blue on a Petri dish (35X)

Mammal heart (10X)