See the year's best pictures of the hidden microscopic world

The winners of the 45th Nikon Small World photomicrography contest showcase the art and science of the otherwise invisible wonders all around us.

Magnifying the otherwise invisible world of microorganisms has advanced fundamental science—and fascinated the public—since Dutch cloth merchant Antoni van Leeuwenhoek first gazed on bacteria using a homemade microscope in the 1600s. Peering through beadlike lenses that he ground himself, Leeuwenhoek described and sometimes hand-drew the delicate shapes of algae, blood cells, muscle fibers, and more that he witnessed through his early eyepieces.

Modern instruments’ capabilities extend far beyond Leeuwenhoek’s devices; microscopists today have the latest in computer processing, fluorescent tagging, and other tools at their disposal, allowing them to examine and take images of tiny things in ever more stunning detail. But more than 300 years after Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries, one constant remains: Immense beauty exists at our natural world’s smallest scales.

That’s why Nikon Instruments has recognized the latest advances in photomicrography since 1974 with its Nikon Small World contest. Now in its 45th year, the competition drew more than 2,000 entries from scientists in over a hundred countries, which were narrowed to the 20 winners announced today.

“Microscopy lets us zoom in on the smallest organisms and building blocks that comprise our world—giving us a profound appreciation for the small things in life that far too often go unnoticed,” Teresa Kugler, one of the co-winners of this year’s contest, says in a statement.