Can you imagine anything trickier than cutting the heart out of a mosquito? How about making an award-winning picture of that heart? Jonas King, a graduate student in biology at Vanderbilt University, has managed to pull off both those tricks. King's image of the mosquito's tubular heart, supported by thin webs of muscles, was judged the first-place winner in this year's Nikon Small World photomicrography competition, one of the world's most prestigious contests for aesthetically pleasing pictures of microscopic subjects. King and the professor in charge of his lab at Vanderbilt, Julian Hillyer, knew that the otherworldly green-and-blue image was a keeper as soon as they saw it. "We weren't really sure how well it was going to work. ... We were both just amazed at how cool it looked," King told me. Preparing and photographing a mosquito's heart is an incredibly exacting job. A slit has to be cut into the bug's abdomen. Its stomach and other organs have to be removed. Two types of stain have to be applied to the heart and its surroundings: fluorescent green phalloidin for the muscles, and blue Hoechst stain that binds to the DNA in cell nuclei. Then the specimen is put under a microscope, and filtered light zeroes in on the stained cells. King said it takes skill to carve up the mosquito for study. "I don't know if it's from playing guitar for all these years, but I'm good with my hands," he said. The resulting pictures provide insights into the workings of the mosquito's open circulatory system. Muscles surrounding the long tube of the heart help pump the bug's blood, known as hemolymph, from one end of the body to the other. The circulatory system has some bearing on how malaria is spread, because it's a vital link in the chain of transmission for the Plasmodium parasite that causes the disease. "Plasmodium will exit the stomach [of the mosquito], and it has to make its way to the mosquito salivary gland," King explained. "This basic understanding of how the mosquito hemolymph flows can be applied to how Plasmodium and other pathogens can move to the salivary glands. ... It helps us understand a fundamental process in the life cycle of malaria, and I think that's a really great achievement." Other photographs in the Nikon Small World lineup highlight other achievements in scientific imaging. Among the top 20 pictures selected by the judges are:
Tomas Cabello / University of Almeria A 40x view of a black bean aphid shows the offspring inside her body. The photo won the "Popular Vote" in the 2010 Nikon Small World contest.
- An image of the different cells inside the head of a 5-day-old zebrafish, created by University of Utah neurobiology researcher Hideo Otsuna.
- An unusual view of crystals nestled within traditional Chinese soy sauce, offered by Beijing screenwriter Yanping Wang.
- A picture of two human cancer cells in the process of dividing, from Scottish biology researcher Paul D. Andrews.
In addition, visitors to the Nikon Small World website could vote for their favorite image. This year's "Popular Vote" winner was a 40x view of a female black bean aphid, with offspring visible inside her body. The picture, shown at right, was entered by Tomas Cabello of the University of Almería in Roquetas de Mar, Spain. Click through this slideshow of the top 20 images and watch the TODAY Show video segment for the 2010 Nikon Small World contest. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. And check out "The Case for Pluto," Alan's book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.