BEFORE.Standard electron micrograph of a wood borer, Lyctus brunneus.

AFTER.Wood borer image heightened by added color reveals new details.

Scanning electron microscopes provide some of the most detailed images of the small world--from tiny creatures to crystals. But for all their drama, these images lack one important feature: color. Because these instruments create their pictures using a beam of electrons, the original images are in stark black and white.

Adding so-called "false color" has long been controversial, although the practice is now widely applied to images of distant galaxies and other objects in space made by instruments that do not observe in visible wavelengths. Proponents argue that color, even when it is added artificially, enhances the amount of information the human eye can acquire.

Now, researchers at Australia's national research establishment, CSIRO, and a private company, Dindima Group, have developed an inexpensive, software system that allows electron microscopists to display images on the screen in vibrant hues. Previous systems were analog and required additional hardware.

As these images show, the colors may be unnatural--but they reveal real insights into nature. The developers expect that their program will find widespread use, both in the sciences and the arts.

SPACE ALIEN? No, its only a Bryozoan, a group of colonial marine invertebrates that thrive on plankton.

BUG EYES. View over an insect's compound eye resembles a surreal landscape.

FLYASH. Tiny particle of ash looks like a colorful beachball.

FAULT LINE. A puncture cuts through the layers of a metal laminate.

CRYSTALS. Microscopic crystals grow amid the fibers in a piece of wood.