These starry objects are human erythrocytes, also known as red blood cells, with an altered morphology referred to as echinocytes. The term echinocytes originates from the Greek word echinos, which literally means “hedgehog”.
Red blood cells are usually biconcave with a smooth surface. However, when these blood cells undergo stress their shape changes. Numerous spiky projections are formed when the cell membrane expands. Conditions that cause these alterations include dehydration and increased pH.
This micrograph was taken in November 2013 on a Zeis Ultraplus FEG SEM at the Unit for Microscopy and Microanalysis at the University of Pretoria. Each cell has a diameter of 3 – 5 μm, which is not visible to the naked eye. These red blood cells were incubated with lymphocytes.
Titled “Starry Starry Night”, Dr Swanepoel’s photograph reminded him to look for the hidden beauty in even an unfavourable situation – just as Vincent van Gogh’s famous “The Starry Night” painting depicts splendour in dark times.
This image earned Dr Swanepoel top spot in the “Science Close-Up” category in the 2013 Southern African Science Lens (SA Science Lens) photography competition.
Organised and sponsored by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), the SA Science Lens competition has been going since 2002. From portraying science in our everyday lives or showing something not visible to the naked eye, to simply showing the beauty of science – many striking images have come out of the now biennial competition.
Credit: Dr Albe Carina Swanepoel | SA Science Lens