Every year, the top 20 images from the Nikon Small World contest are put on display at Science World at TELUS World of Science. I haven't noticed too many people stop to look at them. A fire tornado at centre stage can certainly distract you from the strange and beautiful pictures with their unassuming labels, like: Osteosarcoma lamella, 8000x, SIM.
But I'm a total science nerd! And so I can tell you that this picture of an osteosarcoma lamella is pretty darn exciting. Granted, not quite as thrilling as a fire tornado (not many things are) but it's closer than you may imagine. To find out why, let's break down that cryptic label:
An osteosarcoma is a cancer cell. As with many fancy science words, it can be decoded by digging into the typically Greek or Latin origins of the word. In this case, "osteo" and "sarcoma" are Greek for "bone" and "to become fleshy." In plain English, we're talking about a bone cell gone wrong. When working properly, these cells help produce new bone, in just the right amount, in just the right place—at the ends of present bones. When they go wrong and become osteosarcomas, there is typically too much bone—sometimes in weird places.
Next up is "lamella", which means "thin plate" in Latin. This description is actually pretty good. Imagine a cell as a ball squished flat at the bottom. When this cell decides to move, a thin layer of its surface—called the lamella—is pushed outwards from the bottom in the direction of travel by a network of filaments that act like a flexible skeleton.
So that's what we're looking at in this image: the front bit of a bone cancer cell on the move.
How did they take a picture of something so small?
This particular lamella portrait, which is framed on Science World's wall, is shown at 8000 times its actual size. To put that into perspective, that's more magnifying power than the Hubble Space Telescope. However, it is the astounding detail that sets this image apart; a level of detail thought to be impossible until 15 years ago when scientists found a new way to play with light.
Most of the Nikon Small World images are captured with traditional microscopes, which work by bending light from an object through a glass lens and through an opening where there is a camera. It's important to note that the image produced by these older microscopes is not a perfect representation of the object. The image is subject to an optical phenomenon called "The Diffraction Limit", which means that the distance at which two points are seen as distinct, tops out at around 200 nanometres, or 2 billionths of a metre. Any closer, and the two points appear on the camera as a single blurry blob. The structures that make cells work are typically separated by tens of nanometres, agonizingly out of reach of conventional methods.
The lamella portrait is a product of most sophisticated technology. Today, scientists can peer beyond the diffraction limit using super-resolution microscopes with intimidating acronyms like PALM, STED, STORM and SIM. These microscopes work by combining fluorescent labelling technology with the predictable way in which light interacts with itself and super powerful computers. Where once there were blobs, now we see richly detailed, intricate structures—as we can see in this image of the slender filaments of actin protein arcing across the osteosarcoma lamella.
This is just the start of a very exciting time in cell biology. Already researchers have found a way to use these new microscopes to capture 3D animations of events inside living cells. What comes next? Who knows? But I want to be around to see it, even if it means missing out on a fire tornado.