Written By: Isabel Powell
In our bustling, blue-light-filled world, we often have to remind ourselves to take a moment and appreciate the beauty of the natural world around us. For most, this might involve a quick walk through a park or forest, listening to waves crash against the shore, or listening to the first birdsongs in the spring. However, we often neglect the inherent beauty of the world too small to see. Our lives are built by trillions of precise chemical reactions and complex biological structures, yet most of us hardly know how intricately and beautifully designed they are. From the glimmer of bioluminescent organisms to the frantic dashing of neurotransmitters, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate just how wonderfully complicated the natural world is.
There are two factors preventing us from enjoying the intricacies of the microscopic world: its tiny size and its complexity. Selective staining methods add colors that allow us to detect distinct parts of cells or chemical compounds. Microscopes then magnify the small particles and cells, exposing us to the chaotic world of biology. They allow us to identify what we are looking at, sense movement, and learn about the inner workings of this nearly invisible world.
The Immune System: Protecting You and Looking Good Doing It
On the left and right, a vibrant macrophage is brought to life by a 3View electron microscope at the University of Queensland. Macrophages are part of the immune system; they respond to infections by engulfing a pathogen and alerting other immune cells to the presence of an invader. On the outside of the macrophage, the colors illuminate the cell membrane and a highly structured cytoskeleton in a beautiful display. We can
detect macrophages even without a microscope. For example, when a cut becomes
infected, the cut may become sore and warm. This heat and pain are proof that macrophages are at work protecting you from foreign invaders!
A pathogen is a microorganism that can cause disease.
Brains are Beautiful
For those who are intrigued by neuroscience, the image on the left will be of interest to you! Captured here is a young hippocampal neuron.
Every second, our neurons send messages, pictured here as bright, traveling sparks, to different parts of the brain. In this snapshot alone, thousands of neurons are intertwined, connecting different regions of the brain and allowing the brain to store memories and learn.
Nadia Cummins captured a simpler, yet equally as impressive display on the right. Two neurons interlace, supporting each other as they grow. Their long, sprawling axons reach out to communicate with other neurons nearby. This interconnection and growth allow us to think, act, and learn.
The neurons shown on the left were captured with confocal microscopy and illuminated with fluorescent labeling. Confocal microscopy uses a laser to magnify microscopic samples, and fluorescent labeling colors particular substances by attaching a fluorophore. The cell bodies, shown predominantly in yellow and orange, are the center of a neuron’s functions; they carry genetic information, maintain the neuron’s unique and specific structure, and provide energy for sending messages throughout the brain.
These imaging techniques can even help us detect when something is wrong. In some cases, microscopic imaging can diagnose health conditions and help people receive necessary medical care. The image at right demonstrates the striking difference between a healthy adult brain (top) and the brain of a person suffering from Alzherimers (bottom). Alzheimers is a brain disorder that slowly compromises memory and disrupts brain functioning, particularly in older people. Alzheimers is often associated with amyloid plaques, or abnormal bumps, shown below in red, which prevent messages from being properly sent through the brain.
Chemistry is Cool
X-ray crystallography is a complex and difficult process by which a researcher grows a crystal, freezes it, and shoots it with an X-ray beam. During one of her first attempts at x-ray crystallography, Furlong mistakenly waited too long and the crystal dried completely on the microscope. This accident produced this beautiful image instead! Even if you don’t end up with the results you anticipated or hoped for, you can always find something beautiful in your mistakes.
We often appreciate science for its practical applications, rather than its physical appearance. Perhaps it’s worth taking a second to admire how wonderfully planned and spontaneously chaotic life, and the science behind it, can be. From meticulous cellular structures to beautiful chemical accidents, science is truly beautiful.