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The prize-winning image depicts the ''primary cilia''- hair-like structures which extend outside most human cells - magnified more than 30,000 times.
Each structure acts as a ''sensory probe'', providing crucial information to the cell about its immediate external ''microenvironment'' and telling it what to do.
The image was produced by Michael Jennings, as part of his University of Otago PhD research, also utilising earlier work by his supervisor, Research Associate Prof Tony Poole, of the Otago department of medicine.
Initially long-neglected, primary cilia are attracting rapidly growing international research interest. Prof Poole, an award-winning researcher who has devoted his 35-year career to this field, praised Mr Jennings' ''world first'' achievement in revealing the anatomically-correct internal structure of primary cilia in human cartilage cells.
Mr Jennings spent hundreds of hours using specialised AgResearch electron microscope tomography equipment, based at Lincoln.
The highly detailed three-dimensional view of the tiny organ-termed an organelle-could revolutionise understanding of this once ''enigmatic'' feature of most human cells.
''It's a brand new area and no-one else has done this,'' Prof Poole said.
Abnormal primary cilia are involved in many conditions and diseases, including a polycystic kidney disease, which can affect one person in every 400.
Mr Jennings and Prof Poole won the $1000 first prize in an ''Art of the Invisible'' nanotechnology exhibition in Auckland.