By Phil Plait | January 17, 2012 1:26 pm

If there is any definition of "ironic", it must be a smiley face seen in a cancerous cell:

Australian researchers at the Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research were investigating how the protein beta-catenin invades a cell’s nucleus and causes it to become cancerous, when they spotted the protein apparently mocking them. You can see this a bit more clearly in the video they made:

The circle is the cell’s nucleus as the protein moves in, and the dark spots are where the protein is blocked. The smiley face doesn’t surprise me; we’re hardwired to see faces and familiar shapes everywhere we look (click the tag marked "pareidolia" — the psych term for this — under this post to see lots of examples). Heck, I spotted one in a supernova once…

And I certainly hope this research yields insight into how to fight cancer. I’d love to see that smirk wiped off that nucleus’s face.

Tip o’ the gamma knife to Amos Zeeberg and Fark. Image credit: Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pareidolia, Pretty pictures

Comments (15)

  1. Dee

    THANK YOU for this post. The original article I saw seemed so asinine; the title was something like “cancer laughs at researchers.” Ugh. Thanks, Phil. Good post.

  2. knobody

    from my days as a microscopist, i saw a few smiley faces, but somehow corn and sorghum just aren’t as ironic.

  3. Looks like Jesus to me.

  4. Mark Hansen

    Had my own medical problem with a bit of pareidolia about 15 years ago. Agonising pain in the back, go to hospital, get told it’s almost certainly a kidney stone. Have X-ray done and there on the print is the kidney-shaped kidney stone. It took a bit of time for me to see the funny side of that bit of pareidolia.

  5. That was actually quite a good definition of “irony”; but can you distinguish parody from satire?

  6. Artor

    Here’s my favorite bit of smiley-face pareidolia:
    Bonus: Richard Attenborough!

  7. Donx

    eh. there are too many people. if we cure everything without sterilizing ourselves the only way left to die will be to kill each other. i guess that’s better…

  8. Ash

    I’m a microscopist in cancer research. You see stuff like this from time to time.

    Although you can make stuff like this with a DNA damaging FRAP laser. I’ve written my name across the nucleus of a cell.

  9. Peter Davey

    To quote the Prince of Denmark: “One may smile and smile, and be a villain”.

  10. db26

    This is an OBVIOUS photoshop.

  11. Calli Arcale

    That is hilarious! Sometimes fate has a sense of humor. Part of me can’t help thinking that the tumor cell is going “neener-neener-neener!” at humanity, even though I know it’s just pareidolia.

  12. Cancer

    U Mad?!? ūüėÄ

  13. Mark

    For my job I scan slides of blood and bone marrow nuclei for leukemia and lymphoma cases. You’d be surprised how often Mickey Mouse appears under my scope! (along with plenty of smiley faces, etc.).

  14. Nice GFP emoticon. Check out my version in phase contrast. Not smiley face, more like a screaming face. Expression changes over time too!


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