25 scientific images so gorgeous you can't even handle it

If you think microscopes and scanners can't produce beautiful art, you're so, so wrong.

Jefferson Reid
1 of 25 Dr. Xiawei Ou

Some nerves

Every year, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology runs the BioArt contest. Researchers worldwide submit images culled from their latest projects, and the winners are as gorgeous as they are scientifically significant.

For example, studying infant nutrition is a beautiful thing, in both the literal and figurative sense at the Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center. Dr. Xiawei Ou's team used diffusion tensor imaging tech to non-invasively capture this multi-colored marvel, a 3-D visualization of brain nerve fiber bundles interconnecting.

2 of 25 Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil

Micro-organism Manet

Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil make the list of BioArt winners for this time lapse video of bacteria colonies growing on an agar plate at New England BioLabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts. By painting various bacteria on the friendly medium and watching them for several weeks, researchers learn how various species of microorganisms interact. It's information that could be vital, as bacteria are now being harnessed to produce human antibodies and other vital substances.

3 of 25 Adam Summers

Translucent treasure

University of Washington researcher Adam Summers entered the BioArt winners circle in 2014 for this see-through vision of the scalyhead sculpin fish, highlighting the skeleton (red) and cartilage (blue) to study the subtleties of joint mobility and morphology. The National Science Foundation supports Summers' research, which uses natural structures and systems to inspire new technology.

4 of 25 David S. Goodsell

Modeling Ebola in 3-D

It's hard to believe that the Ebola virus, something so chaotic and ugly at the macro level, can be so micro-elegant. But here it is.

The image comes courtesy of the Protein Data Bank's Molecule of the Month series and shows Ebola's seven structural proteins (shades of blue, green and magenta), its RNA genome (yellow) and its membrane (light purple). The three-dimensional structures of ebola proteins are freely available to investigators worldwide, promoting research into stopping the deadly virus.

Pretty. Scary.

5 of 25 Adam Brown and David Biron

Sunny bacteria smorgasbord

Hungry nematode worms put a ring on it -- it being lunch -- as they chow down on bacteria in this University of Chicago research project supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Adam Brown and David Biron use the worm C. elegans, one of the simplest organisms with a nervous system, to study how the brain chemical serotonin affects food-seeking behavior.

6 of 25 Heinz Baumann, Sean T. Glenn, Mary Kay Ellsworth, and Kenneth W. Gross

Painterly tumor tracking

Beating a single cancer is tough enough, but tracking multiple cancers and tumors throughout the body is even more challenging.

That's why the visual aids in a Roswell Park Cancer Institute study offer more than a strangely haunting beauty. In this mouse model of a pancreatic cancer, the research team induced the animal's cells to produce fluorescent molecules that are easy to trace, and the colored markers get passed down to descendant cells.

7 of 25 Jessica Ryvlin, Stephanie Lindsey, and Jonathan Butcher

Hot chicks of emerald hue

If you were looking for the beautiful side of chicken embryos, look no further. Researchers at the Cornell University are using these would-be birds to explore the formation of congenital heart defects in hopes of aiding humans. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the research team is observing heart development in real time and using detailed images like these to diagnose ailments and discover new treatment strategies.

8 of 25 Olivier Duverger and Maria I. Morasso

The wonderful weave ... of teeth?

This isn't a grass skirt or a craft project lost in a dusty closet. This woven latticework is the surface of a mouse tooth, seen through an electron microscope. Researchers at the NIH are probing tooth enamel development and structure to decrease health risks linked to weak teeth, including heart disease and systemic infections.

9 of 25 Kimberly Leiken and Elana Harris

Color me compulsive

Researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center look inside the mind of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder. In the video, each luminous cube represents activity in a different part of the brain as recorded by a magnetoencephalography helmet. Researchers are using the device to assess treatment responses.

10 of 25 Alice Dohnalkova

Bacteria ready for a close-up

Beauty is more than skin deep; it's under-the-ground deep, as illustrated in this jot from the rhizosphere. For non-bio heads, the rhizosphere is the plant root zone, and the vibrant yellow bit pictured is an intricately structured soil bacterium attached to a plant root.

The electro-scanning microscopy image was created by the Department of Energy's Office of Biological & Environmental Research. And while it's lovely to look at, the ultimate research goal is to "develop predictive models to enhance the production of bioenergy crops and mitigate the negative impacts of climate change."

11 of 25 Matthew Ware and Biana Godin (Vilentchouk)


In this scanning electron micrograph, several one-micron-sized, non-toxic silica beads (yellow) are seen on the surface of a human fibroblast cell, which produce the structural materials found outside of cells in the body, such as collagen. Images such as this one, from the Houston Methodist Research Institute in Houston, Texas, may someday help us understand how therapeutic drugs interact with tumors and other maladies.

12 of 25

Gamers play to map the brain

Scientists at MIT and Princeton enlisted some unlikely research assistants to map neural networks: online gamers of EyeWire. Players identify connections (synapses) between neurons, which are then paired with functional data gathered by partner labs, allowing investigators to infer how these cells process information.

Pictured here: retinal ganglion cells as mapped by players. Turns out, your mom was wrong: Video games don't rot your brain; they map the brain -- at least in this instance.

13 of 25 Peter Barr-Gillespie and Kateri Spinelli

What it looks like to listen

Hearing is a beautifully hairy phenomenon, as this electron microscope image of a chicken's inner ear shows. Each hair cell in the inner ear has a tuft, or "hair bundle," of thin and long projections. Their vibrations ultimately turn into a chemical signal.

Researchers Peter Barr-Gillespie and Kateri Spinelli at the Oregon Health & Science University are exploring this micro-world to develop better methods for detecting and treating hearing loss and balance issues.

14 of 25 Matthew E. Arnegard, Derrick J. Zwickl, Ying Lu, and Harold H. Zakon

Electric imagery

These related electric fish species hail from the Okano River of Gabon. Each species is shown, along with a recording of its electric organ discharge, which these fish use to communicate and locate prey, much like bats use echolocation. Funding from the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences allowed researchers to compare this electrical variability with genetic mutations that, in humans, lead to congenital heart defects and childhood epilepsy.

15 of 25 Janet Iwasa

HIV up close

This 3D model of an HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) particle shows the membrane (green) surrounding the viral capsid (yellow-orange pinwheels) with the viral RNA genome (blue lines) inside. The goal of photographer Janet Iwasa's project is to create accurate and compelling 3D animations of the HIV life cycle.

16 of 25 Shachi Bhatt and Paul Trainor

A bright orange slice of life

Microscopic details of an embryonic mouse torso deliver an outsized beauty, courtesy of Shachi Bhatt and Paul Trainor's work at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. Studying the parallel pathways of the early development of blood vessels (gray) and nerve cells (red), these researchers are focusing on the gene triggers of these complex processes. Understanding normal development is key to countering birth defects and disease.

17 of 25 Sabriya Stukes and Hillary Guzik

Fanciful fungi wars

The beautiful but deadly blue fungi spores above meet their match in mouse macrophage immune cells. It's a battle that's closely watched by 2014 BioArt winners Sabriya Stukes and Hillary Guzik at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

The NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases supports the researchers, who are using vibrant electronic scanning microscopy images like the one above as part of their arsenal, probing how fungi cause disease and affect the immune system.

18 of 25 Frank Moutos and Farshid Guilak

Strength is beautiful

Anyone who's ever busted a nose knows that cartilage heals very slowly. One way to accelerate that repair is with "tissue engineering," or artificially stimulated tissue production. Here's one such approach illustrated in a photo: a three-dimensionally woven biomaterial scaffold.

19 of 25 Mohammed Khan, Theodore S. Steiner, Ho Pan Sham et al.

Biopsy beauty shot

You're looking at the first line of defense between a person's intestinal lining and unwanted inflammatory disorders. This tissue, taken from a colon biopsy, has been stained for certain cellular components that could be used to treat bowel diseases in the future.

20 of 25 Robin Yoon, Darin J. Falk, and Adrian Gary Todd

Diaphanous disorder

Scientists at the University of Florida at Gainesville are studying Pompe disease, a debilitating inherited disorder, by using gene therapy to help patients improve neural and cardiorespiratory functions. Striking images like the one allow researchers to observe and pinpoint communication breakdowns between nerve cells (green) and neuromuscular junctions (red). It's a new way to look at an often-fatal disease.

21 of 25 Nathanaёl Prunet, Elliot Meyerowitz, and Thomas Jack

Sexing it up, plant style

This distinctive image of young Arabidopsis flower buds highlights red "superman" genes, or genes that induce cells to become male and female plant parts. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Dartmouth College are using images like this one to aid in studying stem cells, cell specialization and flower development. The research could boost agriculture, medicine and other biological fields.

22 of 25 Suzana Car, Maria Hindt, Tracy Punshon, and Mary Lou Guerinot

Think zinc

Using synchrotron X-ray fluorescence tech, scientists created this heat map of zinc levels in a plant leaf. Researchers at Dartmouth, funded in part by the NIH and the National Science Foundation, are trying to find ways to increase zinc levels in plants. It's more than just abstract research. This micronutrient is vital to our brain functions, gastrointestinal needs and immune systems. Indeed, zinc deficiencies affect more than 2 billion people worldwide, making this lovely leaf scientifically essential.

23 of 25 Jenolyn F. Alexander, Veronika Kozlovskaya, Eugenia Kharlampieva and Biana Godin

Targeted chemotherapy: Looking good, doing good

Researchers are squaring off against cancer with nanotech that's easy on the eyes. In this shot produced with electro scanning microscopy, purple and turquoise cancer cells are seen assimilating microcarriers (brown cubes), which are delivering targeted medications to kill only rogue cells while sparing healthy ones. This death-to-cancer delivery system is being developed by NIH's National Cancer Institute, supported by researchers from Houston Methodist Research Institute and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

24 of 25 Paul R. Odgren

What healing looks like

During normal bone development and healing, cartilage is transformed into bone with the help of osteoclasts, a specialized type of cell. In this image of cartilage (purple and white) from a young mouse femur, osteoclasts (red) surround a blood vessel filled with red blood cells (yellow). Funding from the NIH's National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases supports this research program, which aims to understand how osteoclasts form.

25 of 25 Matthew J. Ware and Biana Godin Vilentchouk

Cancer cells sharing

This striking image is a glimpse of microscopic guerrilla warfare, as two neighboring cancer cells share molecules, and perhaps intelligence, about drug resistance through a tunneling nanotube. Researchers Matthew J. Ware and Biana Godin Vilentchouk at the Houston Methodist Research Institute are seeking ways to shut down or exploit this kind of inter-cancer cell communication in the tumor microenvironment.

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