Nature’s Smallest Life Photos As Seen Under The Microscope

Life is not only what we can see with the naked eye. Thanks to the invention of the microscope and macro photography, the amazing world of nature’s smallest life is visible to all of us. Life, as we know it, is any organism that maintains homeostasis, is composed of cells, and undergoes metabolism. Furthermore it can grow, adapt to its environment, respond to stimuli, and reproduce. So, what does nature’s smallest life consist of? No, it is not just bacteria. And no, not all bacteria are out to make us sick or kill us. The smallest life forms on this Earth also include parasites and other micro animals, and… viruses.

For the longest time, scientists thought of viruses as nonliving organisms. But by creating reliable methods to study viruses, researchers have found new evidence that suggests viruses are indeed living entities. Still, there is a lot of controversy regarding this subject. Just for good measures, I included a little info on viruses in here.

The wonderful world of nature’s smallest life

Let us begin with what we are most familiar with. Bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere. They are in the environment, on and inside the bodies of animals and humans, in the water, on plants, and in the food we eat. Most of them are beneficial and only few cause diseases.


Strep chain

The Streptococcus lives on and inside our bodies. Most of its strains are harmless, but some can become invasive and can cause all sorts of trouble. Strep throat is one of the milder infections. Others are more severe and can cause problems in the heart function. Streptococcus pyogenes is responsible for the flesh-eating disease.

Nature's smallest life. A chain of red rods
National Geographic Photograph by Martin Oeggerli, with support from School of Life Sciences, FHNW


Nature’s smallest life produces nature’s strongest glue

This crescent shaped bacterium of nature’s smallest life also produces the strongest natural glue. The glue is so strong, that just a little bit of it can withstand the pull from lifting several cars at once.

Caulobacter crescentus is a very common water bacteria that likes lakes, rivers, and water pipes. It secrets a sugary sticky substance that it uses to attach itself on surfaces. Since it works under water, even salt water, its glue could be used as an adhesive in surgical procedures like hip replacement and dental work. Someone just needs to find a way to produce large amounts of it without it sticking to every surface needed to produce it.

nature's smallest life. Crescent shaped rods with flagellum.


A Gut full of nature’s smallest life

We still don’t know many of the species of bacteria that live inside the guts. They have very busy lives, though. Asides from helping us with digestion and absorbing nutrition they also protect our intestinal walls. Do you know that they also assist in weight regulation? Having more of the right bacteria doing their jobs inside of you will help you shed some pounds or gain much needed weight. Intestinal bacteria are also capable of warding off autoimmune diseases. It is a good thing we have these little buggers.

Nature's smallest life colorful mix of different bacteria.
National Geographic Photograph by Martin Oeggerli, with support from School of Life Sciences, FHNW


The double-edged sword

Helicobacter pylon lives in the stomach lining and is very common there. This bacterium is good and bad. The good is that, over time, it reduces stomach acid and acid reflux. It also helps our body to fend off esophageal cancer, and protects us from allergies and asthma. The bad part about its presence, though, it increases our risk of stomach cancer and peptic ulcers.

The industrialized world sees a dramatic increase in allergies and asthma. Scientists believe it might be related to the decreasing frequency of this bacterium in our stomachs. This is in part due to high doses of antibiotics during childhood. In the photo below the yellow rods are Helicobacter pylon. What you see in brown are stomach cancer cells.

National Geographic Photograph by Martin Oeggerli, with support from School of Life Sciences, FHNW


The beauty in the field

Nature’s smallest life contains some real beauty too. What you see here is a lab-grown colony of Paenibacillus vortex. It lives all around us in the soil, water, forage, and even insect larvae. This little bug is quite social. The bacilli use chemical signals to communicate with each other as well as physical links.

As they grow and multiply they organize each other into swarms with arms that they send out to search for food. What is interesting is that these swarms don’t like to cross trails with each other, so they avoid that from happening by moving out of the way. The swarms can even split and reunite when they detect different patches of food. Intelligent lifeform?

National Geographic Photograph by Eshel Ben-Jacob and Inna Brainis



We have to thank this tiny green cyanobacteria for creating Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere way back in history. And it did it all through photosynthesis. Its ancestral forms have also evolved into chloroplasts, which are the part of the cells in plants that carry out the photosynthesis.

National Geographic Photograph by Steve Gschmeissner, Photo Researchers, Inc


What’s that in your mouth?

Did you know that the human mouth contains more bacteria than that of a dog? Some of these little buggers are beneficial to us, others cause dental problems. Some of them even begin to make the mouth lining their home in as little as a few days after birth. To outcompete the living space of the bad bacteria, it is helpful to boost the population of some of the good ones.

There are oral probiotics available on the market that can prevent and even reverse dental disease. Nope. They are not called oral because you eat them. How else would you take probiotics? Oral probiotics contain the bacteria you need for a healthy mouth. They come in lozenges or chewable tablets so they have time to find places in the mouth to build their homes.

National Geographic Photograph by Martin Oeggerli, with support from School of Life Sciences, FHNW


Related articles: 

Pictures show nature’s scary side of life and death

Fascinating tiny animals from all over the world

Earth’s strangest natural wonders 



In order to continue its existence, a virus reproduces by invading a cell of any kind of life form. The virus forces the affected cell to produce thousands of copies of the virus at an extremely fast rate. This can lead to many infectious diseases in human, animals, and plants. But not all viruses are bad. Although there is still a lot that needs to be learned about viruses, researchers already discovered that viruses, and their relationship with microbial life, play a critical role in Earth’s biosphere.

Looks like ET

The Bacteriophage (any virus that infects bacteria) looks like it belongs in a sci-fi movie. There are more of these viruses on Earth than there are stars in the universe.  Trillions of them are inhabiting each of us.

Photograph by Department of Microbiology, Biozentrum, University of Basel/Photo Researchers, Inc


Parasites and other micro animals

Not all parasites are harmful, but all move in with a host. Uninvited, I might add, they begin to live off that host. Then there are also other micro animals that live on this planet. They are big enough to be discovered with the naked eye, but only the microscopic view brings out the details.

Nature’s smallest life includes tacos bell?

The protozoa Trichomonas vaginalis might resemble a taco in its flattened form, but I would not recommend eating them. The are the causing agent of Trichomoniasis, the sexually transmitted disease.


Say hello to Tardigrade

Tardigrades are water dwelling little creatures that live everywhere. From mountaintops to the deep sea and mud volcanoes and from tropical rain forests to the Antarctic there are tardigrades.

They have the reputation to be the toughest animals on the planet, because they can handle just about any weather condition and temperature.


It’s a spaceship, it’s a fish…

… it is a Giardia protozoa. Giardia lives in the intestines of infected individuals. Infection usually occurs when individuals drink water or eat foods from sources contaminated with the feces from infected individuals. Notice the cycle of life here? Giardia cause the horrible diarrheal illness giardiasis.


Got an itch?

If the itch is in the groin area, under your arms, or maybe under your mustache? Do even your eyelashes feel itchy? The cause might be this louse. The crab louse or pubic louse is a real blood sucker and loves to hide and reproduce on any area of the body as long as there is coarse hair.

nature's smallest life


Eel swimming through red doughnuts?

Nature’s smallest life can get inside our bloodstream and travel in there to its destination. Like this parasitic Trypanosoma brucei. It is the cause for the vector-borne disease African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness. The culprit that carries the parasite is the tsetse fly in sub-Saharan Africa. The photo shows the parasite inside the bloodstream where it grow into long and slender forms. The “red doughnuts” are red blood cells.

Nature's smallest life inside the bloodstream


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