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Microscope photos: See a beautiful blood-brain barrier

Nikon releases the results of its annual Small World Photomicrography Competition, and algae, larva, and bat embryos have never looked so good.

Walter Piorkowski

As a slight arachnophobe, I'm a bit surprised to discover that I find the above photo of live newborn lynx spiderlings stunning -- and the subjects rather adorable. Stunning and adorable are in the eye of the beholder, of course, but I do know that Walter Piorkowski's photo suddenly makes me feel a bit more comfortable with creepy crawlies.

It happens every year when Nikon announces the results of its annual Small World Photomicrography Competition, which celebrates the art of photography shot through a light microscope. Science becomes exquisite (unexpectedly at times) as photomicrographers turn their tiny lenses on the likes of bat embryos, algae, larva, stinging nettles, and ladybug legs. Even insidious cancer cells become visually mesmerizing.

Piorkowski's spider shot grabbed second place in this year's competition, which drew nearly 2,000 submissions from around the world. The below photo of a blood-brain barrier in a live zebra-fish embryo nabbed first.

The blood-brain barrier plays a critical role in neurological function and disease, and Drs. Jennifer L. Peters and Michael R. Taylor of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., developed a transgenic zebra fish to visualize the development of this structure in a live specimen.

"We used fluorescent proteins to look at brain endothelial cells and watched the blood-brain barrier develop in real-time," Peters and Taylor said. "We took a three-dimensional snapshot under a confocal microscope. Then, we stacked the images and compressed them into one -- pseudo-coloring them in rainbow to illustrate depth."

Click through our gallery above to see many more of the winning images chosen by a panel of top scientists and optical-imaging experts. If you want to get even closer up on cells sprouting from dextran beads embedded in fibrin gel, an exhibit of the photos will tour North America next year.

blood-brain barrier
This photo of a blood-brain barrier in a live zebra-fish embryo took first place in 2012's Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition. Dr. Jennifer L. Peters and Dr. Michael R. Taylor