Tiny strands of tubulin.
Credit: Pakorn Kanchanawong, National University of Singap...
NHLBI Researchers Work Featured in Airport Art Show

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What at first glance may seem like a child’s drawing is instead an image of dividing cells. Taken by Earl Stadtman Investigator Dr. Nasser Rusan from NHLBI’s Laboratory of Molecular Machines and Tissue Architecture, the image of a pig cell in the process of dividing is one of 46 scientific images – enlarged by as much as 50,000 times – on display in an exhibit called “Life: Magnified.”

The exhibit will be on view at Washington Dulles International Airport's Gateway Gallery through November 2014. The gallery, en route to Concourse C, is in a two-level walkway through which about 2.5 million passengers pass each year.

In Dr. Rusan’s image (above), the chromosomes (purple) have already replicated and the duplicates are being pulled apart by fibers of the cell skeleton known as microtubules (green). Studies of cell division yield knowledge that is critical to advancing understanding of many human diseases, including cancer and birth defects.

The exhibit is cosponsored by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's Arts Program. The program uses the arts to enhance travel experiences at Dulles International and Reagan National Airports.

"These images show science that shines like art. Many of these stunning pictures were created by researchers who work at or are funded by NIH, as part of their quest to better understand basic life processes and gain insights about health and disease," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

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Dr. Daniela Malide, a staff scientist in NHLBI’s Light Microscopy Core, is proud that her image (left) was chosen to be part of such an outstanding exhibit. The same image was recognized as an “image of distinction” at the 2013 Nikon Small World International Competition.

“At first glance, you may think these are cherry tomatoes, but they’re not,” Dr. Malide said. “They’re beautiful fat adipose tissue. Who would have thought something that everyone is trying to lose could be so beautiful?”

The image shows a mouse’s fat cells (red) surrounded by a network of blood vessels (green). Fat cells store and release energy, protect organs and nerve tissues, insulate us from the cold and help us absorb important vitamins.

“It’s always great when scientific images are recognized outside of labs and journals as art,” she added.

Additional artwork on display from NHLBI researchers and grantees include:

Tiny strands of tubulin, a protein in a cell's skeleton

Pakorn Kanchanawong, National University of Singapore and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health; and Clare Waterman, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health

Just as our bodies rely on bones for structural support, our cells rely on a cellular skeleton. In addition to helping cells keep their shape, this cytoskeleton transports material within cells and coordinates cell division. One component of the cytoskeleton is a protein called tubulin, shown here as thin strands.

Cells lining the blood vessel walls

Christopher V. Carman and Roberta Martinelli, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.

The structure of the endothelium, the thin layer of cells that line our arteries and veins, is visible here. The endothelium is like a gatekeeper, controlling the movement of materials into and out of the bloodstream. Endothelial cells are held tightly together by specialized proteins that function like strong ropes (red) and others that act like cement (blue).

Three muscle fibers; the middle has a defect found in some neuromuscular diseases

Christopher Pappas and Carol Gregorio, University of Arizona

Of the three muscle fibers shown here, the one on the right and the one on the left are normal. The middle fiber is deficient a large protein called nebulin (blue). Nebulin plays a number of roles in the structure and function of muscles, and its absence is associated with certain neuromuscular disorders.

The 46 colorful backlit enlargements in the exhibit were selected from more than 600 submitted by researchers. In addition to the variety of organisms, the collection features a wide range of cell types and imaging techniques.

Although only passengers who pass through airport security can see the exhibit itself, an online gallery is available. The site includes high-resolution versions of all of the images in the collection, along with longer captions than in the airport exhibit. All of the images are freely downloadable for non-commercial purposes.

Additional resources: