Wellcome Image Awards: shedding light on the microscopic world

This week medical charity the Wellcome Trust presented their annual image awards, which highlight the best new pictures acquired in the past 18 months by their free picture library.

The prizes are awarded to “the creators of the most informative, striking and technically excellent images” on the basis of “the ability of the picture to communicate the wonder and fascination of science.”

Dr Alice M Roberts, who presented the awards, emphasised not only the utility of images in science, but also their value as beautiful work of art.  “Imaging and imagery can help scientists in many ways: to understand structures that are too small to be seen by the naked eye, or perhaps to elucidate the relationship between structure and function,” she said. “But as well as deepening understanding, the art of science can also be – in its own right – beautiful and awe-inspiring.”

My favourite images are those created using microscope techniques like electron microscopy and multiphoton microscopy, which provide an extraordinary insight into the detail of human anatomy.

This first picture is of villi in the small intestine – finger-like structures that absorb nutrients from the food passing through the gut.  Paul Appleton, who produced this image using fluorescent imaging techniques, hopes that it might help researchers identify cancerous change in colon tissue, pointing out that “Scientists have to characterise normal tissue before they can look for changes in abnormal tissue.”

SI villi

Another of my favourites is this vivid picture of capillaries from a structure in the eye known as the ciliary body, which sits either side of the lens.  Capillaries measure 5-10 micrometres in diameter and are only one cell thick, so getting such a clear and informative image of these tiny vessels is quite an achievement.  The bright red colour is the result of a dye – likely to be carmine dye – that was injected into the artery that supplied the capillaries.


Number three is this picture of compact bone – the dense stuff that surrounds the bone marrow.  The structures that look like rings in a tree stump are called osteons, in which lamellae of bone tissue form around canals that house the blood and nerve vessels supplying the bone.  The black specks show osteocytes, the living cells that produce bone tissue.  The cells are lost during processing, however, leaving the holes within the bone that they once occupied.  Unlike the previous images, no false colour was added to this picture.  Your intestines aren’t blue and red like the image of villi above, but your bone definitely looks like this.

compact bone

Last is this image of in vitro fertilization.  The “blazing sun” object is the egg, the “rays” produced by cumulus cells that protect the egg.  This image shows the moment of conception, with a sperm wiggling its way in on one side.


These images and more are available to view on the Wellcome Trust Image Awards website.  They’re also on display until Spring 2010 in a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

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