Microscapes take off at D.C’s Dulles airport

Images in the "Life: Magnified" exhibit include bubonic plague bacteria (yellow) in a rat flea. 

B. Joseph Hinnebusch, Elizabeth Fischer and Austin Athman/NIAID/NIH

By his own admission, Stefano Bertuzzi is a frequent and grumpy traveler. His trips often take him to the United Airlines terminal at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. There, Bertuzzi, executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, long grumbled that the pictures of local landmarks lining the hallways ought to be replaced with pictures of cells.

The spectacular images that cell biologists capture in their microscopes could “really wow people and make them say, ‘Science is cool,’ ” he thought.

“One day my flight was delayed, and I said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ ” Bertuzzi recalls. He asked his staff to call the airport and find out how to mount an exhibit.

The result is “Life: Magnified,” a display of microscope images depicting cells, microorganisms and details of life invisible to the naked eye, which runs from June to November. Some of the subjects have been magnified up to 50,000 times.

See cell images at Dulles airport’s Gateway Gallery (Concourse C) through November. John Fleischman, ASCB

Cell scientists sent in about 600 images and a committee selected 46 based on visual appeal, Bertuzzi says. Microscope manufacturer Zeiss sponsored the exhibit, organized by the cell biology society and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Airports draw people from many demographics, so they are the perfect place to reach a new audience with science, Bertuzzi says. He hopes the exhibit will inspire children and maybe even a few members of Congress traveling to their districts. He’s also dreaming of similar projects to reach subway commuters and other unsuspecting audiences.

When the exhibit ends, Bertuzzi says, “I’ll be very, very sad and have to go back to looking at pictures of the Washington Monument when I travel.”


LIGHT WORK Workers at Dulles International Airport install the ‘Life: Magnified’ exhibit featuring microscope images of cells, microbes and other tiny creatures. The light boxes mimic the effect of looking at a microscope slide. Woddy Machalek
SWEPT AWAY The image looks like anemones on rocks in a tidal pool, but actually shows cells known as the “mucociliary escalator” lining a mouse’s airway. False- color cells were photographed with a helium ion microscope and enlarged 10,000 times. Eva Mutunga and Kate Klein, Univ. of the District of Columbia, NIST
EGG-SWIRL-ERATION The spiral ovaries of anglerfish (seen here in cross section) expel a dizzying number of eggs (yellow). In some species, the gelatinous masses of mature eggs may stretch three feet and contain almost 200,000 eggs. James E. Hayden, The Wistar Institute
HOT IN HERE The Q fever bacterium Coxiella burnetii (yellow) hides out in a cell (red). The bacterium usually infects cattle, sheep and goats, but people can catch it by breathing barnyard dust, or rarely from unpasteurized milk, tick bites or an infected person. Nasser Rusan, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, NIH
SPLITSVILLE A pig cell divides into two. Internal tracks called microtubules (green) help insure each daughter cell gets a copy of each of the original cell’s chromosomes (purple). Nasser Rusan, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, NIH

Science on the fly

Travelers can get a science fix with current displays at these airports:

SAN: On display at San Diego International Airport are 20 microscope images in Terminal 2, a quilt depicting cells and larger-than-life resin sculptures (left) of bacteria that feed on airplane exhaust.

ORD: Near Terminal 3 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, fliers will find plant cell walls, bee brains and other “Art of Science” images from the Institute for Genomic Biology.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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