Under a microscope, mouse colons and mutant pollen become art

These images show that sometimes, the best medical tools are natural.
A winning picture of mutated pollen grains, colorized, from the Koch Institute Image Awards.
Microscopic images of pollen. The crushed-looking grains are mutants that lack proteins in their structural mesh, called a nuclear lamina. Junsik Choi, David Mankus, Margaret Bisher, Abigail Lytton-Jean, Mary Gehring; Whitehead Institute & Koch Institute

Using microscopes to observe living things has been one of the most powerful ways to understand how biology works, at least since Dutch naturalist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first zoomed in on bacteria in the 1600s. Today, high-magnification images can help design new medical tools, enrich our understanding of diseases, and explain how embryos develop. And, as shown by the 2023 winners from the MIT Koch Institute Image Awards, they can be works of art, too.

The above image shows Arabidopsis thaliana pollen with proteins removed from their nuclear lamina, a membrane of dense filaments that provides structure to cells. Humans who lack lamina (a mutation seen in some skeletal and muscular conditions) generally cannot survive for more than 20 years, according to the biologists at MIT’s Whitehead Institute and the Koch Institute who took this image. They stuck the grains to carbon tape and imaged them with a Zeiss Crossbeam microscope. Without these proteins, pollen also appear misshapen—underscoring the importance of this meshwork for plants as well.

The mRNA in fruit fly sperm are highlighted during cellular development.
Drosophila fruit flies produce some of the animal kingdom’s largest sperm, but they don’t synthesize new messenger RNA. This image shows a cyst of spermatids that have started the process of elongating. The nuclei are at one end of the cyst (white) and the sperm tails are elongating at the other end of the cyst. The red and cyan show two different types of mRNAs—the red one is diffuse throughout the cyst, while the cyan one is polarized at one end. Jaclyn Fingerhut, Yukiko Yamashita; Whitehead Institute
Two cells frozen as they divide.
The center of this image shows a plasma bridge, with lingering DNA inside, between two dividing cells that failed to separate. Such segregation errors can result in cancerous mutations. Teemu Miettinen, Scott Manalis; Koch Institute at MIT
A particle developed for long-term storage of an mRNA vaccine.
This microscale particle was developed for long-term storage of an mRNA vaccine. A polymer coating (pink) protects and stabilizes the dried mRNA vaccine (blue). Eventually, the container will be embedded in a dissolvable needle and injected into the body to release multiple doses of the active vaccine. Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang, Jooli Han, Laboni Santra, Xinyan Pan, Robert Langer, Ana Jaklenec; Koch Institute at MIT
Developing tissue of a fruit fly embryo.
Developing tissue in a Drosophila fruit fly embryo. On the left, nuclei in gray are linked by new cell junctures, marked in orange. On the right, cell boundaries are mapped with randomly assigned colors to track them as they evolve. At center, a newly-formed structure fold pulls the two sides inward. Mary Ann Collins, Adam Martin; MIT Department of Biology
A cross-section of a microparticle designed to deliver drugs and vaccines.
A 35-micron slice of a “core shell” microparticle that was implanted under the skin of a mouse for one week. It was sectioned, then imaged with a confocal microscope to understand how the mouse’s immune system responded to it and whether it was damaged. As a medical tool, the particle’s “core” would be filled with vaccines, drugs, or other cargo. William Rothwell, Morteza Sarmadi, Maria Kanelli, Robert Langer, Ana Jaklenec; Koch Institute at MIT
A mouse colon targeted by a radiation beam.
This mouse colon has been irradiated by a focused beam to induce DNA damage to nuclei in a region of interest (pink) without affecting the neighboring cells (blue). Molecular biologists hope that this technique can help physicians identify therapeutic combinations that improve clinical radiation. Daniel Schmidt, Iva Gramatikov, Matthew Vander Heiden; Koch Institute at MIT