Microscopic Hidden Worlds Revealed

Microscopic Hidden Worlds Geek Impulse
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Microscopic Hidden Worlds Geek Impulse
© Photograph by Jannicke Wiik-Nielsen

Worms such as mealworms, super worms, and any type of larvae disgust most people around the world. They may no bet the prettiest of the insect kingdom to the naked eye, but if you could magnify these worms by a 100x you would see more than just a creepy crawler. You would be able to see the striking features of their facial features, and it may cause you to see these little larvae in a different light.


Jannicke Wiik-Nielsen is a famous photographer of these exceptionally small life-forms.  Her electron micrographs have won several international awards and have been showcased in exhibitions around the world. She is currently collaborating with Norwegian biologist Dag O. Hessen on a book about the importance of tiny organisms. Her portraits that depict the beauty of the microscopic features of insects, parasites, bacteria, and other exceptionally small life forms can be found in her collection – Hidden World. It will portray creatures as beautiful instead of “creepy-crawlies”. She is able to show their beauty by scanning electron microscopy, a technique that yields high-resolution images through the use of electrons instead of photons.


Microscopic Hidden Worlds Geek Impulse
© Photograph by Jannicke Wiik-Nielsen / Lumpfish eat a wide variety of prey, including small crustaceans. Salmon farmers now take advantage of this characteristic and use large number of lumpfish to control sea-lice infestations in salmon farms. As with introduction of any new wild animal species introduced to domesticity, new diseases and infections particular to lumpfish have been discovered. SEM, colour manipulated, magnification x20-70 when printed at 10cm wide.

“Electrons have much shorter wavelengths than light waves,” she says, “which [allows] much better resolution than an ordinary light microscope.”


In scanning electron microscopy, a focused electron beam captures a high-resolution, grayscale image of a specimen by scanning its surface. The beam is very sensitive to dust and water, so scanning must be done inside a high-vacuum chamber. After Wiik-Nielsen collects a specimen, she places it in a solution that helps maintain its structure. Then she dries the sample thoroughly and gives it a thin coat of metal. This helps the specimen stay intact throughout the imaging process, which takes just a few minutes. Once an image is made, Wiik-Nielsen uses Photoshop to colorize it.


“Depending on the purpose of the photo,” she says, the colors are manipulated to replicate what she’s able to see with her own eyes, or, in other cases, “the colors may be manipulated in an artistic form,” or left as black and white.


Microscopic Hidden Worlds Geek Impulse
© Photograph by Jannicke Wiik-Nielsen / Aquatic parasite (Gyrodactylus salaris) attachment organ. G. salaris lives mainly on the skin and fins of freshwater fish, especially Atlantic salmon, and attaches to the host by means of a complex hook and anchor arrangement. This causes tissue damage and great irritation to the fish. SEM, colour manipulated, magnification: x840 when printed at 10cm wide.

Wiik-Nielsen’s passion for electron microscopy started about six years ago. During her time as a  research scientist at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, she was studying fish eggs that had been infected with a fungus, as well as an amoeba that creates gill disease in farmed salmon. Her photos of the amoeba caught the attention of the institute’s aquaculture biologists and breeders, she says, “who at long last could actually see the parasite that they were trying to fight.” Wiik-Nielsen was fascinated by the microscope’s capacity to magnify the organisms up to 200,000 times, and it soon became a research tool of choice.


Her favorite subjects of her portraits are parasites. Even though parasites scare the average person, Wiik-Nielsen says, things like tapeworms and roundworms become incredible when amplified by an electron microscope. The images reveal the creature’s physical characteristics—mouthparts, for example, or the tiny protrusions called microvilli—in wild detail. This makes them seem more abstract and alien once the color is added on with Photoshop, making it a beautiful sight.


Even blood-sucking deer ticks captivate Wiik-Nielsen. In an ode to a tick she encountered and then photographed, she wrote, “I was disgusted when you landed on my shoulder. You thought I was a deer who could save your life. Instead I was a human who could end your life. Now, looking at your face, I feel anything but disgust.” She sees them not as some parasite that can just inflict a disease, but as an organism just trying to survive in this cruel world. They have no idea what they inflict on humans or animals they bite, they just know how to survive.


In addition to using the electron microscope to image specimens for research, Wiik-Nielsen uses it—with the institution’s permission and support—to image things she finds in her garden, or when exploring outside with her two young daughters. This allows her to share the beauty in the world where most would just ignore or overlook it.

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