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Big pictures of tiny wonders

Jan Michels
Click for slideshow:

Feast your eyes on

Olympus BioScapes

winners for 2009.

Who would have thought that a water flea, diseased neurons and poisoned algae could be so beautiful? It's just a matter of having the right perspective.

The flea, the neurons and the algae are among the stars of the show in this year's Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition. The contest is just one of several conducted annually to highlight scientific imagery that puts a fresh perspective on subjects that, under other circumstances, might seem commonplace or even repellent.

Take the water flea, for example.

In its natural element, it's a little critter - measuring less than an eighth of an inch (2 millimeters). But in the photomicrograph created by University of Kiel zoologist Jan Michels, the humble flea becomes a big green monster, wearing an ornate "crown of thorns" that protects it from predators. The nuclei within its cells glow like angry coals.

Terrible violence on a microscopic scale is on view in Skidmore College biologist David Domozych's picture of once-celled algae being blown apart by an herbicide known as oryzalin. The cell's innards spill out like blood-red guts.

The picture of motor neurons afflicted by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, looks like a glowing spider web, buzzing with activity. And in truth, the picture serves as a signal of hope rather than infirmity. These neurons were created from the skin cells of an 83-year-old ALS patient, using a promising procedure known as cell reprogramming.

One of the first applications for the procedure is to create living but diseased human cells - which can be subjected to experiments without endangering the patient from which the cells came, in hopes of understanding the disease better or even finding a cure. This particular image was created by a pair of researchers, Gist Croft and Mackenzie Weygandt of Columbia University and New York's Project ALS.

Such images are scientifically meaningful, and beautiful as well. They're also becoming far more available. More than 2,000 microscope images and movies were entered in this year's competition, setting a record for the six-year-old prize program.

"These images and movies reflect some of the most exciting research being done around the world and reveal the art that exists in optical microscopy," Osamu Joji, group vice president and general manager of Olympus America's scientific equipment group, said in this week's award announcement. "They shed light on the intricacy of our living universe and provide us with a visual record of the science of our era. But just as important, they reflect the awesome grace, beauty and mystery of aspects of the natural world that can't be seen with the naked eye."

Judges gave the top prize - $5,000 worth of Olympus products - to Michels for the photo of the water flea. Lesser prizes were awarded to the rest of the top 10 finishers, and another 65 images were cited as honorable mentions. Click through the top 10 in our slideshow, and check out the rest in Olympus' online gallery.

But don't stop there. Here's a roundup of other microscopic and scientific views:

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