Image Awards Celebrate the Beauty of Invisible Biological Worlds

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An image of hexagonal wells containing individual microbes. Researchers use these cells to rapidly screen compounds for 'hit' combinations that promote health or defeat disease. In this particular experiment, green means go –– a promising hit ready for further testing. (Photo: Jared Kehe, Tony Kulesa, Paul Blainey/Broad Institute and Koch Institute at MIT)

It's a view of the microworld fit for an art gallery.

For the last nine years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Koch Institute has recognized the stunning visuals captured by the university's life sciences and biomedical research with a public gallery. Called the Image Awards, these beautiful glimpses of the hidden biological processes going on around us are presented on massive 8-foot backlit square and circular displays.

This year's 10 winners, chosen from a record-setting pool of more than 160 submissions across a wide range of STEAM disciplines and organizations, visually demonstrate everything from engineered "smart" cells capable of delivering disease-fighting drugs to machine learning mapping the colorful relationships of cell behavior. (And for the record, STEAM fields are science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics, or applied mathematics.)

You can view the winning submissions with accompanying captions from the authors below.

Nothing to Sneeze At: Inspiration and Respiration in a Dish - 5000x magnification

Nothing to Sneeze At: Inspiration and Respiration in a Dish. (Photo: Raghu Chivukula, David Mankus, Margaret Bisher, Abigail Lytton - Jean, David Sabatini Massachusetts General Hospital, Whitehead Institute, and Koch Institute at MIT)

"Inspired by a patient’s mysterious breathing disorder, MGH and MIT researchers set out to understand it by growing human airway cells in a dish. Derived from adult stem cells, the resulting tissue (seen here) allows a detailed view of cilia (hair-like filaments) in a fully differentiated airway epithelium — the respiratory tract’s frontline defense system. By manipulating genes in the model, the clinician-scientists were able to discover and characterize a rare genetic condition in the patient responsible for impaired ciliary function."

Epigenetics Express : Tracking DNA Methylation in Real Time - 40x magnification under water lens

Epigenetics Express: Tracking DNA Methylation in Real Time. (Photo: Yuelin Song, Rudolf Jaenisch Whitehead Institute and Koch Institute at MIT)

"How do genetically identical cells give rise to diverse tissue types? The Jaenisch Lab studies the epigenetic mechanisms that determine if and when genes are expressed in a cell, leading to variations in gene activity. In this 3D image of developing cells, different colors represent different activation states of an epigenetic process—DNA methylation—that suppresses gene activity. Analyzing epigenetic changes in real time across complex tissues and cell types at high resolution helps researchers understand how cells develop, and what goes wrong in cancer and other diseases."

In Good Shape: Using Machine Learning to Improve Cancer Therapy - 1,000,000x magnification

In Good Shape: Using Machine Learning to Improve Cancer Therapy. (Photo: Daniel Reker, Jee Won Yang, Natsuda Navamajiti, Ruonan Cao, Dong Soo Yun, Giovanni Traverso, Robert Langer Koch Institute at MIT)

"This image juxtaposes a molecular dynamics simulation (left) and an electron microscopy image (right) of sorafenib. Sorafenib, like many other cancer drugs, can spontaneously form intricate nano-scale structures that change how the drug behaves.

"The Langer Lab uses smart algorithms to compare simulations to reality and analyze or predict the assembly of these nanostructures under various conditions. Their findings allow them to design better versions of the drugs to improve patient outcomes."

A World Within: Mapping the Body’s Social Network

A World Within: Mapping the Body’s Social Network. (Photo: Carly Ziegler, Shaina Carroll, Leslie Kean, Alex Shalek Institute for Medical Engineering & Science and Koch Institute at MIT)

"As the key player translating DNA code into cellular action, RNA provides important insight into cells’ past, present, and future.

"Shalek Lab researchers have sequenced the RNA expression of 45,782 single cells from 14 different organs to create an atlas of healthy cell physiology for reference in studies of various disease states including HIV and cancer. The team uses machine learning to map the relationships (lines) between the various subpopulations of cells (dots). Each color signifies a different tissue of origin; together, they present a broad spectrum of cell behavior."

Where the Wild Types Are: Exploring the Roots of Developmental Biology - 65x magnification

Where the Wild Types Are: Exploring the Roots of Developmental Biology. (Photo: Nicki Watson, Mary Gehring Whitehead Institute)

"At the heart of modern biology lies the model organism—a living system that can be easily maintained and manipulated in the laboratory to shed light on biological processes.

"The Gehring Lab uses the model organism Arabidopsis lyrata to interrogate how different genes are expressed as they pass from parent to offspring. This electron micrograph shows the plant’s flower, highlighting the male (yellow) and female (green) reproductive organs in their unmodified, or wild type, state.

"Through images like these, the W.M. Keck Microscopy Facility helps researchers step out of the weeds of their investigations and bring the beauty of biology into bloom."

Circuit Training: Shining a Light on Neural Development - 20x magnification

Circuit Training: Shining a Light on Neural Development. (Photo: Matheus Victor, Li-Huei Tsai Picower Institute for Learning and Memory)

"Proper brain function depends on the balance between the activity of excitatory and inhibitory neurons. In the synthetic brain circuit seen here, engineered light-activated neurons (blue and white) respond to stimulation patterns that mimic excitatory signals from the developing brain. The electrodes in the foreground record the transmission of signals between cells, revealing important information about the development of neural networks. The Tsai Lab studies how rhythms generated by synchronicity between excitation and inhibition are impaired in Alzheimer’s disease."

Motion in the Ocean: Using Sea Urchins to Understand Cell Migration - 10x magnification

Motion in the Ocean: Using Sea Urchins to Understand Cell Migration. (Photo: Genevieve Abbruzzese, Richard Hynes Koch Institute at MIT)

"Cancer cells exhibit many similarities to embryonic cells, including the ability to travel to distant and precise locations. As cells move, tracks of fibrous proteins facilitate their migration. The Hynes Lab uses sea urchins to study these processes—and proteins—in three dimensions. Peering inside transparent embryos, researchers observe glassy, newly-formed matrices of fibers around dark skeletons. Determining how cells use this matrix to guide their path through the embryo may provide valuable clues for understanding the mechanisms that promote cell migration during both development and cancer metastasis."

Natural Born Killers: Activating the Immune System to Fight Disease - 6450x magnification

Natural Born Killers: Activating the Immune System to Fight Disease. (Photo: Allison Demas, David Mankus, Margaret Bisher, Abigail Lytton-Jean, Galit Alter, Sangeeta Bhatia Koch Institute at MIT and Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard)

"Special operatives and frontline defenders against infection and disease, natural killer (NK) cells are the ninjas of the immune system. The Bhatia and Alter Labs seek to visualize the process of activation and attack. The NK cell seen here has been deposited on a glass slide alongside parasites and therapeutic antibodies. Preparing for battle, its surface transforms from smooth to bumpy and protrusions start to emerge. Malaria is the enemy this time, but similar approaches are also being tested against cancer."

Living Drug Factories: The Secreted Life of Therapeutic Proteins - 4x magnification

Living Drug Factories: The Secreted Life of Therapeutic Proteins. (Photo: Suman Bose, Amanda Facklam, Amanda Whipple, Robert Langer, Daniel Anderson Koch Institute at MIT)

"Cell therapy comes from within. Researchers in the Langer and Anderson laboratories are engineering 'smart' cells (blue) and seeding them on an implantable chip (black). As the cells mature (green), they secrete proteins (red) that can fight disease in the surrounding tissue by responding to the conditions therein. The biocompatible device not only allows the cells to grow in their natural environment and deliver exactly the right amount of drug when needed, it also protects the system from destruction by immune cells."