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Amazing Photos Reveal The Invisible Microbial Universe All Around Us

A new book offers a visual celebration microbes, which have shaped life on Earth for eons–and make our own lives possible.

The universe is a fascinating place no matter where you look, from our solar system right down to apple piesLife at the Edge of Sight, a new book that explores the beauty of microbes, is a stunning look at the invisible universes around us–and inside us.

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The book, highlighted recently by Quanta Magazine, showcases the work of the photographer and Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School Scott Chimileski and the Harvard Medical School professor of microbiology and immunobiology Roberto Kolter. It’s not only a glimpse of microbes themselves, but of the way studying them has shaped our interpretation of the world. Through 176 color illustrations and 35 halftones, the authors guide the reader through an explanation of how our discoveries about these invisible critters have influenced our understanding of life–and even our thinking “about possible life on other planets,” they explain.

Chimileski’s photo methodology is simple, albeit painstaking. He uses DSLR cameras, equipped with macro lenses and electronic microscopes, to capture the striking beauty of all kinds of microbes–from the slime mold Physarum polycephalum that process dead organic matter, to the cylindrical bodies of the antibiotic-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa that can be so deadly in hospitals.

[Image: Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter]
For the most part, what you see in these images is what you get in real life. Chimileski uses no color enhancements or false coloring (with the exception of the occasional usage of dyes to highlight different cellular parts of some organisms). In fact, according to the authors, “colonies with millions of microbes can produce an array of pigments that put an artist’s palette to shame.” To achieve the speed of growth you see in his videos, which are “typically accelerated between 5,000 and 50,000 times their actual speeds,” He uses an incubator equipped with microscope lenses combined with time-lapse equipment.

Humans have shaped our planet over the last century, but microbes have done the same for eons. We use them to create delicious cheeses and beers, and even in the construction of buildings, but they’re far more important and influential than that. “All organisms,” the authors explain, “have evolved within this universe of microbes, yielding intricate beneficial symbioses,” like the gastrointestinal microbiota that make it possible for us to digest food at all. Our very lives are possible because of them.

Consider that–alongside Kolter and Chimileski’s trip into the invisible–and be amazed. The book seems like the perfect way to admire and celebrate their constructive and sometimes deadly beauty. Check it out here.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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