The slimy, glistening mass of seaweed washed up on a sandy beach seems light-years distant from this feathery, dendritic image of Irish moss (Chondrus crispus).

"If you pull Chondrus out of the ocean, it's folded on itself – really curled up," says creator Andrea Ottesen, a botanist and molecular ecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. It wasn't until after she had "pressed every one of those little ends down with sea stones" and left it to dry for 2 days that the seaweed's beautiful, simple shape was revealed.

Besides being one of the most common seaweed species on the Atlantic coast, says Ottesen, Irish moss and algae like it are sources of natural thickeners and stabilisers called carrageenans, which are widely used in processed foods as diverse as lunch meat and ice cream.

Image credit: Andrea Ottesen, University of Maryland

This image won tied first place in the “Photography” category of the 2007 International Science and Engineering Visualisation Challenge published in Science, published by AAAS.