• The winners of the 2020 Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition have been announced.
  • The first place image of a zebrafish reveals a new discovery that could revolutionize treatments for brain diseases.
  • The entries showcase techniques in microscopic photography and spectacular images of the natural world.

Science and the arts are often thought of as being on opposite ends of the spectrum. But sometimes the pursuit of scientific knowledge turns up images of extraordinary beauty.

This picture of a juvenile zebrafish was the winner of the 2020 Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition - an annual event that celebrates the technically challenging art of making the invisible visible.

an up close picture of a fish
Dorsal view of bones and scales (blue) and lymphatic vessels (orange) in a juvenile zebrafish.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

Like many of the entries in the competition, it was taken using cutting-edge imaging techniques, and is far more than just a pretty picture. The image - a composite of 350 individual pictures - was captured by a team led by Daniel Castranova, working in the lab of Dr Brant Weinstein at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, USA. The intricate orange patterns contrasting with the electric blue reveal a groundbreaking discovery which could have important implications for treating disease in human brains, such as Alzheimer’s.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to combat Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer’s Diesease, a result of rapid ageing that causes dementia, is a growing concern. Dementia, the seventh leading cause of death worldwide, cost the world $1.25 trillion in 2018, and affected about 50 million people in 2019. Without major breakthroughs, the number of people affected will triple by 2050, to 152 million.

To catalyse the fight against Alzheimer's, the World Economic Forum is partnering with the Global CEO Initiative (CEOi) to form a coalition of public and private stakeholders – including pharmaceutical manufacturers, biotech companies, governments, international organizations, foundations and research agencies.

The initiative aims to advance pre-clinical research to advance the understanding of the disease, attract more capital by lowering the risks to investment in biomarkers, develop standing clinical trial platforms, and advance healthcare system readiness in the fields of detection, diagnosis, infrastructure and access.

“The image is beautiful, but also shows how powerful the zebrafish can be as a model for the development of lymphatic vessels,” says Castranova. “Until now, we thought this type of lymphatic system only occurred in mammals. By studying them now, the scientific community can expedite a range of research and clinical innovations – everything from drug trials to cancer treatments. This is because fish are so much easier to raise and image than mammals.”

Mind-blowing

The picture of the zebrafish isn’t the only competition entry that could help scientists better understand the brain. The other-worldly patterns below show the intricate connections between the neurons of newborn mice.

a picture of Connections between brain cells
Connections between brain cells.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

The image - taken by Jason Kirk at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas - is used in research on how different proteins affect the development of connections between brain cells.

Nature’s hidden secrets

Advances in microscopic imaging allow us to see nature in a way that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. The picture below, which won second place in the Small World competition, shows the growth of a clownfish embryo from just hours after fertilization to just before hatching - a process that took nine days.

a picture of the Embryonic development of a clownfish.
Embryonic development of a clownfish.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

Using techniques like fluorescent tinting and image stacking, experts in microscopic photography can make the unlikeliest details of the natural world into stunning works of art. The vivid patterns below, that won third place, are in fact the tongue of a freshwater snail.

a picture of the Tongue of a freshwater snail.
Tongue of a freshwater snail.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

Similarly, the spores of a fungus that grows in the soil can be as spectacular as any vista of a distant galaxy seen through the Hubble telescope.

a picture of fungus
Spores and hyphae of a soil fungus.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

From mundane to magnificent

Even the most mundane things that we see every day take on a new splendour when magnified. Below is a single strand of human hair - belonging to the photographer’s daughter.

a picture of a human hair
Human hair.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

These crazy neon patterns that look like they belong in a museum of modern art are, in fact, nylon stockings.

a picture of nylon stockings
All creatures great and small.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

All creatures great and small


At a time when biodiversity is under threat across the globe, and insect numbers in particular are declining rapidly, photomicrography can remind us of the beauty and fragility of creatures we too often ignore.

a close up picture of Bogong moth.
Bogong moth.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

Whether it’s a bogong moth that bears a striking resemblance to a tiger, or an Atlas moth wing as intricate as the finest embroidery, these images prove that size isn’t everything.

a close up picture of the Atlas moth wing.
Atlas moth wing.
Image: Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition