Photomicrographs: art and science to reveal the hidden beauty of the little one

At the same time that space telescopes are dazzling us with stunning images of distant galaxies, nebulae and star clusters, biologists are turning to powerful new microscopes to produce photomicrographs that depict an equally fascinating universe, but right next to our noses.

In the mid-19th century, a young man made a mistake that sparked a revolution in fashion, art, science and medicine. It was a time when hundreds of British soldiers were contracting malaria in the tropics, a bleak prospect that sent chemists racing to synthesize quinine artificially. This ridiculously expensive natural substance was extracted from the bark of the Andean rainforest and was the only known remedy for disease.

Among them was a 19-year-old apprentice named William Henry Perkin. At Easter 1856, while his teacher August Wilhelm von Hofmann was visiting his family in Germany, this boy seized the opportunity and performed all kinds of experiments in his home laboratory in London. He chose a cheap ingredient, coal tar, left over from Victorian gas lighting. He found only failure: instead of producing quinine, his cups filled with a dirty brown slime. But when trying to clean them with alcohol, Perkin noticed something unusual: that material contained a purple coloring substance capable of dyeing silk. Accidentally, he had obtained the first synthetic dye: mauve.

At that time, natural dyes were extremely expensive, status indicators and reserved for the rich and powerful. Since Roman times, they have been extracted from plants and molluscs. Thousands of sea snails had to be boiled to extract the purple dye to color a garment. Perkin’s development changed everything and produced an explosion of color. Although not only revolutionized fashion. He also ushered in a new era in organic chemistry. It marked the birth of an industry that has since given us new paints, drugs, explosives and innovations like synthetic rubber, nylon and polyester.

In particular, it brought about a transformation in the knowledge of inner nature. As journalist Simon Garfield reports in his book Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, these synthetic purple dyes were used by biologists such as the German Walther Flemming to color cells and study chromosomes under the microscope. “This generated a boom in the development of genetics”, says Argentine biologist Eduardo Zattara. 🇧🇷Due to their properties, the dyes stuck to certain parts of the cell and processes that were previously unnoticed began to be seen.🇧🇷

Embryo of ‘Onthophagus taurus’, a bull’s head beetle. / Zattara (The Small World of Nikon)

The delicacy of nature in photomicrographs

Microscopes opened the door to an unknown universe. Dyes and especially photomicrography – the photographing of objects under a microscope – democratized this. Since then, thanks to ever more powerful instruments, science and art have come together to encourage a greater appreciation of the natural world.

Thus, we can see, for example, the impressive video of the inside of a zebrafish embryo recorded by Zattara, which won first place in this year’s Nikon Small World in Motion competition. “This shows cellular migration in this little animal that is so appreciated by science”, explains the researcher from the Institute for Research in Biodiversity and the Environment (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research) in the Argentine city of Bariloche. 🇧🇷Throughout its development, this organism changes from a single cell to dividing into many others that must be located in its place to carry out specific functions.🇧🇷

The recording – one time lapse eight hour image – shows melanin-forming cells known as melanocytes (in orange) moving under the skin of the zebrafish to reach their final positions. In turn, in green, the trajectory of the cells that form a sensory organ in fish known as the lateral line is observed, which helps these animals to feel vibrations and locate themselves in the water. 🇧🇷It’s a kind of ear that covers the body”, describes Zattara. “As they migrate, like a kind of little train, they leave behind a group of cells along the way🇧🇷

Snapshots of the ‘invisible’

Almost daily, alien images invade the web: a close-up of an ant’s face; the hand of a gecko embryo; networks of blood vessels in the intestine of a mouse; a butterfly egg

The effect is dazzling: while we are captivated by images of distant galaxies, nebulae and star clusters from space telescopes like the James Webb and Hubble, the microscopes reveal an equally fascinating universe, but close by.

It was in 1904 that the public’s astonishment with the extremely small began. At the time, the Royal Society of London exhibited an extraordinary collection of photomicrographs taken by Arthur E. Smith: a sheep tick; a diatom; cross section of a lily bud. Few had seen anything like it: portraits made under a microscope, images that revealed a surprising and unknown world.

Technologies took a big leap from that first exhibition. In their wake, they opened a new scientific-artistic field. 🇧🇷When I find something visually interesting, I determine how to capture it,” says Honduran geneticist Roberto Dabdoub, author of micro art, which through its images seeks to encourage a greater appreciation of the natural world. “It’s almost like creating a painting”🇧🇷

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As early as 1868, the French poet Charles Baudelaire described photography as “the most humble servant of the sciences and the arts🇧🇷 At high magnification, photomicrographs reveal the complex beauty of nature on a scale that is alien to us.

🇧🇷I can discover new alien worlds filled with some of the most incredible examples of natural beauty”, comments the American microscopist Nathan Renfro. 🇧🇷Having a camera on my microscope allows me to bring others along for the ride and I can do this without having to get on a plane or drive hours in a car.🇧🇷

In Zattara’s case, interest in microscopy arose in childhood. But it wasn’t until he started his PhD in 2006 at the University of Maryland and had unrestricted access to powerful microscopes that he began to photograph the supposedly invisible. 🇧🇷The first time I used fluorescent materials was with an earthworm“, account. “When I looked at the photograph, my first thought was that it was an astronomical image. They are color palettes that you don’t see in everyday life. This is more reminiscent of psychedelia. Photomicrography allows us to see an unknown world, realities that we don’t see every day. They take us off the scale of what we are used to seeing🇧🇷

Microworld Portrait Award

Complete nervous system of a late pupa of the beetle ‘Onthophagus sagittarius’. / E. Zattara

Over the years, Zattara has expanded his bank of images and videos with everything he has found and examined on these precision devices. In 2017, he tried his luck and entered his first image in Nikon’s Small World, an annual photomicrography contest organized since 1975 by the Japanese multinational. It was a red sea worm named proceraea🇧🇷 🇧🇷I liked how it came out and sent it“, to remember.

In 2019, he won a distinction for an image of an embryo of Onthophagus taurus (dung beetle). In 2020, he repeated it with a cross-section of a beetle’s head (Digitonthophagus gazelle🇧🇷

And this year, it won first prize in the contest’s video category. 🇧🇷When it comes to images to submit for such a contest, I put aesthetics first.“, to recognize. “They are not images to be published in a newspaper. In this case, quality is very important. You can often do science with lower quality images. In the same way, an artistic look is developed🇧🇷

In general, when it comes to images for scientific use, any kind of intentional manipulation is not allowed. This is considered transgression, fraud, fabrication of evidence, in short, cheating.

But in these contests, where each entry is judged on its scientific and artistic merits – such as originality and visual impact – certain types of licenses are allowed: you can adjust the exposure or correct the color balance. 🇧🇷A good photomicrograph is an image whose structure, color, composition and content is an object of beauty, open to various levels of understanding and appreciation.”, reads in the contest regulation.

Each of these Lilliputian portraits is a window into a universe that can only be seen through the lens of a microscope. 🇧🇷Gives us a new view of nature”, acknowledges Zattara, whose images, often tagged #SciArt or #CienciArte on various social networks, have graced magazine covers and won accolades such as the Ralph and Mildred Buchsbaum Award for Excellence in Photomicrography 2016 from the American Microscopical Society.

In 2017, Argentine biologist Eduardo Zattara submitted his first image to Nikon’s Small World contest: it was of a red sea worm called Proceraea. / E. Zattara

🇧🇷They help to understand and visualize the development processes. They are also great for teaching. In my classes, I recounted these processes with mime. Now I only show photos and videos. The new generation of biologists has a much more dynamic understanding of developmental processes. These technologies are transformative”, emphasizes the researcher.

Although he maintains several lines of work ranging from genomics to community ecology, the winning video by this Argentine scientist has little to do with his studies. It was, rather, the result of his widespread curiosity.

Zattara studies the decline in abundance and diversity of wild bee species around the world. In recent years, his Pollination Ecology Group has sequenced the genome of the Patagonian bumblebee. He also examines bee parasites and characterizes the diversity of invasive bees, which are imported from Europe.

🇧🇷At some point I will try to photograph a bee with all its details”, he admits. “Until now, there was no powerful microscopy equipment here in Bariloche. Precisely, one arrived this year at the Atomic Center. I will not miss the opportunity to use it”🇧🇷

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