• The Nikon Small World contest highlights the best microscope images taken each year.
  • This year, the contest received more than 2,000 entries from people in 90 countries.
  • The winning image of 2020, of a young zebrafish threaded with neon-orange lymphatic vessels, reveals the species could help researchers find treatments for brain diseases. 
  • Other winning images include a rainbow snail tongue, a curled-up chameleon embryo, and the intricate mesh of a nylon stocking.
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If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a newfound respect for the very, very small.

But as dangerous as the microscopic universe can seem, it’s also rich with stunning shapes, brilliant colors, and often mysterious biological and physical processes. 

In that spirit, Nikon has released the winners of Small World: the camera company’s 46th microscopy, or microscope photography, competition.

Judges Dylan Burnette, Christophe Leterrier, Samantha Clark, Sean Greene, and Ariel Waldman reviewed more than 2,000 entries from scientists, artists, and hobbyists from 90 countries around the world. All have to be taken with microscopes using optical imaging techniques. They include a rainbow snail tongue, a self-replicating worm, and – appropriate for the Halloween season – a spooky-looking bat embryo skeleton.

Here are the best microscope pictures of the year and what they show.