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"Life: Magnified" Online

A Web companion to the 2014 exhibit at Washington Dulles International Airport

Life: Magnified is an exhibit of 46 scientific images showing cells and other scenes of life magnified by as much as 50,000 times. The exhibit is on display at Washington Dulles International Airport's Gateway Gallery from June through December 2014.

All life is made of cells. Your body contains trillions of them, each smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Scientists use state-of-the-art microscopes to study cells from microorganisms, animals or humans in their quest for insights about health and disease. Many of these scientists receive support from the National Institutes of Health, the nation's medical research agency.

Here we feature high-resolution versions of images in the collection along with longer captions than in the airport exhibit.

In this online gallery, you'll see cells from all around the body—brain, blood, eye, skin, liver, muscle. Each type of cell teaches different lessons about how life works.

Many of the images come from so-called model organisms like mice, fruit flies and zebrafish. These creatures have much in common with us, including a large proportion of their genes. Studying them speeds scientific progress to better understand human health and disease.

Most of the colors in these images do not occur in nature. Rather, they are the result of chemical dyes or graphic design programs that allow scientists to study selected structures within a cell.

In addition to supporting the research that produced many of these images, the National Institutes of Health funds the development of imaging tools and other technologies required to study life in intricate detail.

Life: Magnified is a joint project among the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the American Society for Cell Biology Link to external Web site and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's Arts Program, which utilizes the arts to enhance travel experiences at Dulles International and Reagan National Airports. ZEISS provided additional support of the exhibit.

All of the images are freely available for educational, news media or research purposes, provided the source for each is credited.

 

Relapsing fever bacterium on red blood cells

Relapsing fever bacterium (gray) on red blood cells
Tom Schwan, Robert Fischer and Anita Mora, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

The long, spiral-shaped bacterium (gray) in this image causes relapsing fever, a disease characterized by recurring high fevers, muscle aches and nausea. The relapses result from the bacterium's unusual ability to change the molecules on its outer surface, allowing it to dodge the human immune system. The disease is transmitted through the bite of a tick (not the same species that transmits Lyme disease) and is found in parts of the Americas, the Mediterranean, central Asia and Africa.

Cerebellum: the brain's locomotion control center

Cerebellum: the brain's locomotion control center
Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego

The cerebellum of a mouse is shown here in cross-section. The cerebellum is the brain's locomotion control center. Every time you shoot a basketball, tie your shoe or chop an onion, your cerebellum fires into action. Found at the base of your brain, the cerebellum is a single layer of tissue with deep folds like an accordion. People with damage to this region of the brain often have difficulty with balance, coordination and fine motor skills.

Cerebellum (the brain's locomotion control center) up close

Cerebellum (the brain's locomotion control center) up close
Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego

This is a close-up view of the cerebellum, the brain's locomotion control center (see previous caption).

Human liver cell (hepatocyte)

Human liver cell (hepatocyte)
Donna Beer Stolz, University of Pittsburgh

Hepatocytes, like the one shown here, are the most abundant type of cell in the human liver. They play an important role in building proteins; producing bile, a liquid that aids in digesting fats; and chemically processing molecules found normally in the body, like hormones, as well as foreign substances like medicines and alcohol.

Human blood with red blood cells, T cells and platelets

Human blood with red blood cells, T cells (orange) and platelets (green)
Copyright Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

This microscopic look at human blood reveals that nearly half of our blood is composed of red blood cells. These lozenge-shaped cells have the all-important role of delivering oxygen to our tissues. T cells (orange) are an essential part of the immune system. Platelets (green), the smallest blood cells, clump together into clots to stanch bleeding after an injury.

A mammalian eye has approximately 70 different cell types

A mammalian eye has approximately 70 different cell types
Bryan William Jones and Robert E. Marc, University of Utah

The incredible complexity of a mammalian eye (in this case from a mouse) is captured here. Each color represents a different type of cell. In total, there are nearly 70 different cell types, including the retina's many rings and the peach-colored muscle cells clustered on the left.

Hair cells: the sound-sensing cells in the ear

Hair cells: the sound-sensing cells in the ear
Henning Horn, Brian Burke and Colin Stewart, Institute of Medical Biology, Agency for Science, Technology, and Research, Singapore

These cells get their name from the hairlike structures that extend from them into the fluid-filled tube of the inner ear. When sound reaches the ear, the hairs bend and the cells convert this movement into signals that are relayed to the brain. When we pump up the music in our cars or join tens of thousands of cheering fans at a football stadium, the noise can make the hairs bend so far that they actually break, resulting in long-term hearing loss.

Brain showing hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease

Brain showing hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease (plaques in blue)
Alvin Gogineni, Genentech

Along with blood vessels (red) and nerve cells (green), this mouse brain shows abnormal protein clumps known as plaques (blue). These plaques multiply in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease and are associated with the memory impairment characteristic of the disease. Because mice have genomes nearly identical to our own, they are used to study both the genetic and environmental factors that trigger Alzheimer's disease. Experimental treatments are also tested in mice to identify the best potential therapies for human patients.

Zebrafish embryo

Zebrafish embryo
Philipp Keller, Bill Lemon, Yinan Wan and Kristin Branson, Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, Va.

Just 22 hours after fertilization, this zebrafish embryo is already taking shape. By 36 hours, all of the major organs will have started to form. The zebrafish's rapid growth and see-through embryo make it ideal for scientists studying how organs develop.

Weblike sheath covering developing egg chambers in a giant grasshopper

Weblike sheath covering developing egg chambers in a giant grasshopper
Kevin Edwards, Johny Shajahan and Doug Whitman, Illinois State University

The lubber grasshopper, found throughout the southern United States, is frequently used in biology classes to teach students about the respiratory system of insects. Unlike mammals, which have red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body, insects have breathing tubes that carry air through their exoskeleton directly to where it's needed. This image shows the breathing tubes embedded in the weblike sheath cells that cover developing egg chambers.

Purkinje cells are one of the main cell types in the brain

Purkinje cells (red) are one of the main cell types in the brain
Yinghua Ma and Timothy Vartanian, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

This image captures Purkinje cells, one of the main types of nerve cell found in the brain. These cells have elaborate branching structures called dendrites that receive signals from other nerve cells.

Anthrax bacteria being swallowed by an immune system cell

Anthrax bacteria (green) being swallowed by an immune system cell
Camenzind G. Robinson, Sarah Guilman and Arthur Friedlander, United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases

Multiple anthrax bacteria (green) are being enveloped by an immune system cell (purple). Anthrax bacteria live in soil and form dormant spores that can survive for decades. When animals eat or inhale these spores, the bacteria activate and rapidly increase in number. Today, a highly effective and widely used vaccine has made the disease uncommon in domesticated animals and rare in humans.

Cells lining the blood vessel walls

Cells lining the blood vessel walls
Christopher V. Carman and Roberta Martinelli, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.

The structure of the endothelium, the thin layer of cells that line our arteries and veins, is visible here. The endothelium is like a gatekeeper, controlling the movement of materials into and out of the bloodstream. Endothelial cells are held tightly together by specialized proteins that function like strong ropes (red) and others that act like cement (blue).

Chromosomes lined up for cell division

Chromosomes (blue) lined up for cell division
Jane Stout, Indiana University, 2012 GE Healthcare Cell Imaging Competition Link to external Web site winner

This cell is preparing to divide. Two copies of each chromosome (blue) are lined up next to each other in the center of the cell. Next, protein strands (red) will pull apart these paired chromosomes and drag them to opposite sides of the cell. The cell will then split to form two daughter cells, each with a single, complete set of chromosomes.

The eye uses many layers of nerve cells to convert light into sight

The eye uses many layers of nerve cells to convert light into sight
Wei Li, National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health

This image captures the many layers of nerve cells in the retina. The top layer (green) is made up of cells called photoreceptors that convert light into electrical signals to relay to the brain. The two best-known types of photoreceptor cells are rod- and cone-shaped. Rods help us see under low-light conditions but can't help us distinguish colors. Cones don't function well in the dark but allow us to see vibrant colors in daylight.

Three muscle fibers: the middle has a defect found in some neuromuscular diseases

Three muscle fibers; the middle has a defect found in some neuromuscular diseases
Christopher Pappas and Carol Gregorio, University of Arizona

Of the three muscle fibers shown here, the one on the right and the one on the left are normal. The middle fiber is deficient a large protein called nebulin (blue). Nebulin plays a number of roles in the structure and function of muscles, and its absence is associated with certain neuromuscular disorders.

Gecko lizard toe hairs inspired the design of medical adhesives

Gecko lizard toe hairs inspired the design of medical adhesives
Copyright Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

This up-close look at a gecko's foot shows some of its 500,000 or so toe hairs, each of which is about one-tenth the thickness of a human hair. These hairs split into smaller hairs that fray into spatula-shaped structures, which give geckos their gravity-defying ability to scamper up walls and across ceilings. The strong-yet-gentle grip of gecko feet has inspired the design of medical adhesives for use on delicate skin.

Larvae from the parasitic worm that causes schistosomiasis

Larvae from the parasitic worm that causes schistosomiasis
Bo Wang and Phillip A. Newmark, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013 FASEB BioArt Link to external Web site winner

The parasitic worm that causes schistosomiasis hatches in water and grows up in a freshwater snail, as shown here. Once mature, the worm swims back into the water, where it can infect people through skin contact. Initially, an infected person might have a rash, itchy skin or flu-like symptoms, but the real damage is done over time to internal organs.

Skin cancer cells from a mouse show how cells attach at contact points

Skin cancer cells from a mouse show how cells attach at contact points
Catherine and James Galbraith, Oregon Health and Science University, Knight Cancer Institute

These skin cancer cells come from a mouse, an animal commonly used to study human diseases (including many types of cancer) and to test the effectiveness of drugs. The two cells shown here are connected by actin (green), a protein in the cellular skeleton. Although actin is required by many cells for normal movement, it also enables cancer cells to spread to other parts of the body.

Anglerfish ovary cross-section

Anglerfish ovary cross-section
James E. Hayden, The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, Pa.

This image captures the spiral-shaped ovary of an anglerfish in cross-section. Once matured, these eggs will be released in a gelatinous, floating mass. For some species of anglerfish, this egg mass can be up to 3 feet long and include nearly 200,000 eggs.

String-like Ebola virus peeling off an infected cell

String-like Ebola virus peeling off an infected cell
Heinz Feldmann, Peter Jahrling, Elizabeth Fischer and Anita Mora, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

After multiplying inside a host cell, the stringlike Ebola virus is emerging to infect more cells. Ebola is a rare, often fatal disease that occurs primarily in tropical regions of sub-Saharan Africa. The virus is believed to spread to humans through contact with wild animals, especially fruit bats. It can be transmitted between one person and another through bodily fluids.

Salivary gland in the developing fruit fly

Salivary gland in the developing fruit fly
Richard Fehon, University of Chicago

For fruit flies, the salivary gland is used to secrete materials for making the pupal case, the protective enclosure in which a larva transforms into an adult fly. For scientists, this gland provided one of the earliest glimpses into the genetic differences between individuals within a species. Chromosomes in the cells of these salivary glands replicate thousands of times without dividing, becoming so huge that scientists can easily view them under a microscope and see differences in genetic content between individuals.

Cells with nuclei, energy factories and the actin cytoskeleton

Cells with nuclei in blue, energy factories in green and the actin cytoskeleton in red
Dylan Burnette and Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health

The cells shown here are fibroblasts, one of the most common cells in mammalian connective tissue. These particular cells were taken from a mouse. Scientists used them to test the power of a new microscopy technique that offers vivid views of the inside of a cell. The DNA within the nucleus (blue), mitochondria (green) and cellular skeleton (red) is clearly visible.

Tiny strands of tubulin, a protein in a cell's skeleton

Tiny strands of tubulin, a protein in a cell's skeleton
Pakorn Kanchanawong, National University of Singapore and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health; and Clare Waterman, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health

Just as our bodies rely on bones for structural support, our cells rely on a cellular skeleton. In addition to helping cells keep their shape, this cytoskeleton transports material within cells and coordinates cell division. One component of the cytoskeleton is a protein called tubulin, shown here as thin strands.

Fat cells and blood vessels

Fat cells (red) and blood vessels (green)
Daniela Malide, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health

A mouse's fat cells (red) are shown surrounded by a network of blood vessels (green). Fat cells store and release energy, protect organs and nerve tissues, insulate us from the cold and help us absorb important vitamins.

Q fever bacteria in an infected cell

Q fever bacteria (yellow) in an infected cell
Robert Heinzen, Elizabeth Fischer and Anita Mora, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

This image shows Q-fever bacteria (yellow), which infect cows, sheep and goats around the world and can infect humans, as well. When caught early, Q fever can be cured with antibiotics. A small fraction of people can develop a more serious, chronic form of the disease.

Pollen grains: male germ cells in plants and a cause of seasonal allergies

Pollen grains: male germ cells in plants and a cause of seasonal allergies
Edna, Gil and Amit Cukierman, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, Pa.

Those of us who get sneezy and itchy-eyed every spring or fall may have pollen grains, like those shown here, to blame. Pollen grains are the male germ cells of plants, released to fertilize the corresponding female plant parts. When they are instead inhaled into human nasal passages, they can trigger allergies.

Mouth parts of a lone star tick

Mouth parts of a lone star tick
Igor Siwanowicz, Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, Va.

The mouth parts of a lone star tick are revealed in vivid detail. The center of the mouth (yellow) is covered with many tiny barbs. These barbs keep the tick securely lodged inside the host while feeding. Lone star ticks are common in wooded areas throughout the central and eastern United States, including around Washington Dulles International Airport. They can carry disease-causing organisms, but these typically do not include the Lyme disease bacterium.

Three-dimensional map of a rotavirus

Three-dimensional map of a rotavirus
National Resource for Automated Molecular Microscopy, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif.

This image shows a three-dimensional reconstruction of a rotavirus at a magnification of about 50,000. Rotavirus infects humans as well as other animals and causes severe diarrhea in infants and young children. There are very few fatalities in the United States and other places where a vaccine is available, but elsewhere, the virus is responsible for more than 450,000 deaths each year.

An insect tracheal cell delivers air to muscles (red)

An insect tracheal cell (green) delivers air to muscles (red)
Jayan Nair and Maria Leptin, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg, Germany

Insects like the fruit fly use an elaborate network of branching tubes called trachea (green) to transport oxygen throughout their bodies. Fruit flies have been used in biomedical research for more than 100 years and remain one of the most frequently studied model organisms. They have a large percentage of genes in common with us, including hundreds of genes that are associated with human diseases.

Birth of a yeast cell

Birth of a yeast cell
Juergen Berger, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, and Maria Langegger, Friedrich Miescher Laboratory of the Max Planck Society, Germany

Yeast make bread, beer and wine. And like us, yeast can reproduce sexually. A mother and father cell fuse and create one large cell that contains four offspring. When environmental conditions are favorable, the offspring are released, as shown here. Yeast are also a popular study subject for scientists. Research on yeast has yielded vast knowledge about basic cellular and molecular biology as well as about myriad human diseases, including colon cancer and various metabolic disorders.

Flower-forming cells in a small plant related to cabbage

Flower-forming cells in a small plant related to cabbage
Arun Sampathkumar and Elliot Meyerowitz, California Institute of Technology

In plants, as in animals, stem cells can transform into a variety of different cell types. The stem cells at the growing tip of this Arabidopsis plant will soon become flowers. Arabidopsis is frequently studied by cellular and molecular biologists because it grows rapidly (its entire life cycle is only 6 weeks), produces lots of seeds and has a genome that is easy to manipulate.

Dividing cells showing chromosomes and cell skeleton

Dividing cells showing chromosomes (purple) and cell skeleton (green)
Nasser Rusan, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health

This pig cell is in the process of dividing. The chromosomes (purple) have already replicated and the duplicates are being pulled apart by fibers of the cell skeleton known as microtubules (green). Studies of cell division yield knowledge that is critical to advancing understanding of many human diseases, including cancer and birth defects.

Jellyfish, viewed with ZEISS Lightsheet Z.1 microscope

Jellyfish, viewed with ZEISS Lightsheet Z.1 microscope
Helena Parra, Pompeu Fabra University, Spain

Jellyfish are especially good models for studying the evolution of embryonic tissue layers. Despite being primitive, jellyfish have a nervous system (stained green here) and musculature (red). Cell nuclei are stained blue. By studying how tissues are distributed in this simple organism, scientists can learn about the evolution of the shapes and features of diverse animals.

Cells use bubble-like structures (vesicles) to transport proteins and fats

Cells use bubble-like structures (vesicles, yellow) to transport proteins and fats
Tatyana Svitkina, University of Pennsylvania

Cells use bubble-like structures called vesicles (yellow) to import, transport and export cargo and in cellular communication. A single cell may be filled with thousands of moving vesicles.

Cells missing a key molecule look spikey

Cells missing a key molecule look spiky and cannot move normally
Praveen Suraneni and Rong Li, Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, Mo.

This is a fibroblast, a connective tissue cell that plays an important role in wound healing. Normal fibroblasts, like the one in the image below, have smooth edges. In contrast, this spiky cell is missing a protein that is necessary for proper construction of the cell's skeleton. Its jagged shape makes it impossible for the cell to move normally. In addition to compromising wound healing, abnormal cell movement can lead to birth defects, faulty immune function and other health problems.

Cells keep their shape with actin filaments and microtubules

Cells keep their shape with actin filaments (red) and microtubules (green)
James J. Faust and David G. Capco, Arizona State University

This image shows a normal fibroblast, a type of cell that is common in connective tissue and frequently studied in research labs. Unlike the spiky version above, this cell has a healthy skeleton composed of actin (red) and microtubles (green). Actin fibers act like muscles to create tension and microtubules act like bones to withstand compression.

Fruit fly ovary

Fruit fly ovary
Hogan Tang and Denise Montell, Johns Hopkins University and University of California, Santa Barbara

A fruit fly ovary, shown here, contains as many as 20 eggs. Fruit flies are not merely tiny insects that buzz around overripe fruit—they are a venerable scientific tool. Research on the flies has shed light on many aspects of human biology, including biological rhythms, learning, memory and neurodegenerative diseases. Another reason fruit flies are so useful in a lab (and so successful in fruit bowls) is that they reproduce rapidly. About three generations can be studied in a single month.

Cells lining the trachea, viewed with ZEISS ORION NanoFab microscope

Cells lining the trachea, viewed with ZEISS ORION NanoFab microscope
Eva Mutunga and Kate Klein, University of the District of Columbia and National Institute of Standards and Technology

In this image, the community of cells lining a mouse airway is magnified more than 10,000 times. This collection of cells, known as the mucociliary escalator, is also found in humans. It is our first line of defense against inhaled bacteria, allergens, pollutants and debris. Malfunctions in the system can cause or aggravate lung infections and conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The cells shown in gray secrete mucus, which traps inhaled particles. The colored cells sweep the mucus layer out of the lungs.

Skin cell (keratinocyte)

Skin cell (keratinocyte)
Torsten Wittmann, University of California, San Francisco

This normal human skin cell was treated with a growth factor that triggered the formation of specialized protein structures that enable the cell to move. We depend on cell movement for such basic functions as wound healing and launching an immune response.

Bubonic plague bacteria on part of the digestive system in a rat flea

Bubonic plague bacteria (yellow) on part of the digestive system in a rat flea (purple)
B. Joseph Hinnebusch, Elizabeth Fischer and Austin Athman, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

Here, bubonic plague bacteria (yellow) are shown in the digestive system of a rat flea (purple). Carried by rodents and spread by fleas, the bubonic plague killed a third of Europeans in the mid-14th century. Today, it is still active in Africa, Asia and the Americas, with as many as 2,000 people infected worldwide each year. If caught early, bubonic plague can be treated with antibiotics.

Developing zebrafish fin

Developing zebrafish fin
Jessica Plavicki, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Originally from the waters of India, Nepal and neighboring countries, zebrafish can now be found swimming in science labs (and home aquariums) throughout the world. This fish is a favorite study subject for scientists interested in how genes guide the early stages of prenatal development—including the developing fin shown here—and in the effects of environmental contamination on embryos.

Skin cancer cells

Skin cancer cells
Markus Schober and Elaine Fuchs, The Rockefeller University, New York, N.Y.

This image shows the uncontrolled growth of cells in squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer. If caught early, squamous cell carcinoma is usually not life-threatening.

Developing nerve cells

Developing nerve cells
Torsten Wittmann, University of California, San Francisco

These developing mouse nerve cells have a nucleus (yellow) surrounded by a cell body, with long extensions called axons and thin branching structures called dendrites. Electrical signals travel from the axon of one cell to the dendrites of another.

Bone cancer cell

Bone cancer cell (nucleus in light blue)
Dylan Burnette and Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health

This image shows an osteosarcoma cell with DNA in blue, energy factories (mitochondria) in yellow and actin filaments, part of the cellular skeleton, in purple. One of the few cancers that originate in the bones, osteosarcoma is extremely rare, with less than a thousand new cases diagnosed each year in the United States.

HIV, the AIDS virus infecting a human cell

HIV, the AIDS virus (yellow), infecting a human cell
Seth Pincus, Elizabeth Fischer and Austin Athman, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

This human T cell (blue) is under attack by HIV (yellow), the virus that causes AIDS. The virus specifically targets T cells, which play a critical role in the body's immune response against invaders like bacteria and viruses.

This page last reviewed on November 19, 2014