A blood-sucking tick has never looked so stunning. The makeover is thanks to Marna Ericson of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, who used laser scanning confocal microscopy to capture the autofluorescence of a common deer tick as it feasted on the ear of a golden hamster.

When ticks feed, they transmit bacteria to their hosts that can cause a variety of illnesses in humans, including Lyme disease. Ericson's group wanted to understand how this transmission takes place by engineering fluorescent versions of the tick-associated bacteria. But first the researchers needed to make sure that the colour they selected for the bacteria would be distinguishable from the natural autofluorescence of the tick and hamster.

Judging by the rainbow of hues in Ericson's photograph, this could be a challenge. The colours of the tick's mouth range from the emerald green and brilliant violet of its outer shell to the volcanic red and salmon-orange of its flesh-piercing structures. Even the tissue of the hamster's ear fluoresces; that's the faint olive glow of the background. Ericson says the photograph highlights the “importance of good [autofluorescence] controls.”

“I found this picture incredibly striking,” says panel of judges member Felice Frankel. Frankel believes the picture won because of its “clarity of representation and the way it captures a real-time moment.”

This image won first place in the “Photography” category of the 2004 International Science and Engineering Visualisation Challenge published in Science, published by AAAS.

Image credit: Marna E Ericson, University of Minnesota, Dermatology