Winners of the international contest were announced Tuesday. This shot—taken by Jennifer Peters and Michael Taylor of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and magnified 20 times—took first prize. It's believed to be the first image ever to show the formation of the blood-brain barrier in a live animal.
The barrier is a protective system of cells that filter the blood that flows to the brain. It allows nutrients and other necessities to pass but keeps out bacteria and other pollutants.
To create this shot, Peters and Taylor injected fluorescent proteins into a transparent zebrafish embryo. That let them see the brain's endothelial cells—which line the inner surface of blood and lymphatic vessels—and watch the development of a blood-brain barrier in real-time.
Their three-dimensional image was made with a confocal microscope, which colors blood vessels differently at different depths. (Confocal lenses capture light from a single plane of focus, rather than all available light.) Peters and Taylor stacked their colored images and compressed them into a single shot to show the complexity of the phenomenon they witnessed.
Image courtesy Jennifer Peters and Michael Taylor, Nikon Small World
2nd Place: Baby Spiders
This image of newborn lynx spiderlings magnified six times earned Walter Piorkowski of South Beloit, Illinois, second place in the Small World contest.
Lynx spiders don't build webs or nests; they capture their prey by pouncing on them. Some types, like the green lynx, can change their body color to match the surrounding environment, chameleon style.
There were 97 winners in this year's competition, which is sponsored by Nikon and honors light-microscope photographs whose "structure, color, composition, and content is an object of beauty, open to several levels of comprehension and appreciation."
Image courtesy Walter Piorkowski, Nikon Small World
3rd Place: Cancer Cell
A cell containing human bone cancer, aka osteosarcoma, is transformed into vibrant abstract art after being enlarged 63 times by Dylan Burnette of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. This image—in which protein filaments are shown in purple, mitochondria in yellow, and DNA in blue—took third place.
Image courtesy Dylan Burnette, Nikon Small World
4th Place: Pupal Fruit Fly
It's not a spaceship. It's the visual system of a pupal fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), magnified 1,500 times. Taken by W. Ryan Williamson of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia, this shot claimed fourth place.
The fly's retina is pictured in brown with small spikes of gold. The photoreceptor axons are a bluish purple, while the brain is green.
As in previous years, the 2012 Small World Microphotography Competition was judged by a panel of journalists and scientists.
Image courtesy W. Ryan Williamson, Nikon Small World
5th Place: Phosphate Closeup
Cacoxenite is a phosphate mineral that can range in color from yellow to brown to red. The University of Valencia's Honorio Cócera-La Parra magnified this sample—collected from the La Paloma Mine in Valencia, Spain—18 times to capture the fifth-place prize.
Image courtesy Honorio Cócera-La Parra, Nikon Small World
6th Place: Vibrant Algae
Looking more like an extraterrestrial life form than one of Earth's organisms, this algal Cosmarium was magnified a hundred times. By catching the eye with its assortment of vibrant hues, the image won sixth place for Marek Miś of Suwalki, Poland.
The top 20 photos from this year's competition will be exhibited in a U.S. museum tour and a full-color calendar.
Image courtesy Marek Miś, Nikon Small World
7th Place: Fruit Fly Eye
Magnified 60 times, the eye organ of a larval fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) is awash in surreal color. This image—which netted seventh place for Michael John Bridge of the University of Utah—was made with a confocal lens. That makes different levels of the organ simultaneously visible.
Image courtesy Michael John Bridge, Nikon Small World
8th Place: Sea Gooseberry
Looking more like a series of scythes, this shot of sea gooseberry larvae (Pleurobrachia)—a type of ctenophore that's 95 percent water—was magnified 500 times by Gerd A. Guenther of Düsseldorf, Germany. It came in eighth place.
Image courtesy Gerd A. Guenther, Nikon Small World
9th Place: Larva-Carrying Ant
Caught in the act of carrying its larva, an ant in the genus Myrmica—found throughout the Northern Hemisphere—is enlarged five times in this ninth-place entry by Geir Drange of Akser, Norway.
Ant take their larvae in and out of the nest each day in order to regulate their temperature.
Image courtesy Geir Drange, Nikon Small World
10th Place: Brittle Star
A prickly looking brittle star was magnified eight times—and claimed tenth place—in this shot by Alvaro Migotto of Brazil's University of São Paulo. The marine animal was photographed using a dark-field method, an illumination technique that creates a stark contrast between the specimen and the surrounding area.
Closely related to sea stars, brittle stars vary greatly in color—from red to white, sometimes appearing with banded hues—and are covered in serrated spines.