This year’s winner, an image showing the blood-brain barrier in a live zebrafish embryo, by Dr. Jennifer L. Peters and Dr. Michael R. Taylor, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Walter Piorkowski’s Live newborn lynx spiderlings, magnified 6x.

An image of bone cancer, by the NIH’s Dr. Dylan Burnette, showing actin filaments (purple), mitochondria (yellow), and DNA (blue).

Here’s a photo of the pupil of a fruit fly as it’s growing by Dr. W. Ryan Williamson, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). It shows the retina (gold), photoreceptor axons (blue), and brain (green).

The beautiful fifth place winner, a photo of Cacoxenite (a mineral) from La Paloma Mine, Spain, by Honorio Cócera-La Parra.

Marek Miś used polarized light to capture Cosmarium, a genus of algae, near a Sphagnum, a type of moss.

Utah scientist Dr. Michael John Bridge used confocal microscopy to capture the eye organ of a fruit fly.

The larvae of a sea gooseberry, shot by German scientist Gerd A. Guenther.

An ant carries larva in its mouth, magnified 5x, by Geir Drange.

A 8x image of a brittle star, related to starfish, by Dr. Alvaro Migotto.

Jessica Von Stetina’s photo of "the tip of the gut of a Drosophila melanogaster larva expressing a reporter for Notch signaling pathway activity (green), and stained with cytoskeletal (red) and nuclear (blue) markers."

Esra Guc’s image of lymphangiogenesis assay.

Dr. Diana Lipscomb’s amazingly detailed image of Sonderia, a ciliate that preys upon various algae, diatoms, and cyanobacteria.

José R. Almodóvar Rivera captured this image of the pistil of Adenium obesum, a type of flowering plant.

Turin biologist Andrea Genre’s section of a ladybug.

Fossilized Turitella agate containing Elimia tenera (freshwater snails) and ostracods (seed shrimp), by Wisconsin scientist Douglas Moore.

Stinging nettle trichome on a leaf vein by photographer Charles Krebs.

Dr. David Maitland’s 300x image of coral sand.

Iranian scientist Dr. Somayeh Naghiloo captured this amazing shot of the early flowering of garlic.

University of Cambridge neuroscientist Dorit Hockman photographed embryos of the species Molossus rufus, the black mastiff bat.


The Year's 20 Best Microscopic Photographs

Nikon’s annual microscopy competition honors the most remarkable microscopic photos of the year, from bat embryos to bone cancer.

Every year, Nikon honors the best microscopic photography in the world with a competition called Small World. And as microscopy techniques improve, every year the winners seem to get crazier. Last year’s winner was an image of the Green Lacewing’s inner architecture—eyes, muscles, nervous system, and all. Before that, a photograph showing the structure of a mosquito’s heart won out. Even the first Small World winner was cool—a 1977 image of quartz crystals inside of a piece of cobalt-rich glass.

This week, Nikon released the 2012 Small World winners, and yep, they’re pretty great. Honorees include images of a fruit fly’s pupil as its develops, an ant carrying larvae in its mouth, and incredible high-res images of bat embryos. The winner, an image from two scientists at Louisiana’s St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, shows the blood/brain barrier being formed in a live zebrafish embryo.

Most of the winning images were created with a technique called confocal microscopy, which—and this is a pretty clumsy metaphor—is a bit like using a microscope as a 3-D printer. It takes multiple scans of a single specimen to construct a high-res model of its entire body—unlike normal microscopy, which snaps an image of the subject under a uniform light. Polarized light is pretty common, too—whereby scientists use specific types of light waves to illuminate details on a subject that might appear uniform to the naked eye. The real juggernaut seems to be live-cell imaging, which let the winners capture the blood/brain barrier as it was forming, without hurting the animal.

What’s so fun about Small World is that it lets us understand the scientific import of images that, to our untrained eye, look like abstract patterns or op-art wallpaper. Actually, 18th place (a 100x image of coral sand) could totally double as wallpaper. Head over to Nikon’s site for more.

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  • Pat Crane

    Stunned by the photo by David maitland in Discover magazine.
    I do quilts & he could sell this image & others like it to a fabric company for a great new line of fabric product. I am NOT selling anything, I'm actually a retired college professor. Please ask Dr Maitland to contact me at
    (I tried to reach him on link'din but they wanted to charge me to get in touch w/ him!!?? How awful is that?)
    Patricia (Pat) crane

  • Heather Gates

    "Actually, 18th place (a 100x image of coral sand) could totally double as wallpaper. " I had the exact same thought when I saw that image.