Fact Check: Does Viral Tweet Show 'Most Detailed Image' of a Human Cell?

While social media can be a useful tool for discovery, it can also be full of misleading claims, particularly in the realm of popular science.

The Claim

On May 1, Twitter account @microscopicture posted an image of what appeared to be a highly detailed photo of a human cell along with the caption: "Most detailed image of a human cell to date."

The tweet has proved immensely popular gaining more than 430,000 likes as of April 3 and more than 55,000 retweets.

Many users expressed amazement at the image which is full of what appears to be the various shapes and colors of the inner mechanisms of a cell.

It is not the first time that the image has been posted. The same image has been shared before, such as on Facebook here in 2021 with the same claim that it is "the most detailed image of a human cell to date".

The Facts

The claim that the image is the most detailed image of a human cell to date is false. In fact, it is not even a real image of a human cell.

The "image" is actually a 3D computer illustration of a eukaryotic cell—found in humans but also in animals, plants, and fungi—and not a photograph. It was created by Gaël McGill, director of molecular visualization at the Harvard Medical School Center for Molecular & Cellular Dynamics and CEO of the science visualization company Digizyme, and scientific animator Evan Ingersoll.

Speaking to Newsweek, McGill said the computer rendering is intended to visualize cell components so that they can be better understood. An interactive version of the image is available on the Digizyme website here, where users can highlight the individual parts of the cell to find out what they're called.

He added that a real photograph in such detail would not even be possible since molecules at the scale in question would be even smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

Cell illustration
Part of the cell illustration that has gone viral on Twitter this week. One tweet gained over 400,000 likes. Gael McGill/Evan Ingersoll/Digizyme

"I am thrilled by the interest that our image has generated, but it has also been frustrating to witness how quickly misinformation spreads and how images like this one are often just taken without permission or proper attribution," McGill said.

"The image is a synthesis of many different kinds of data about the shape and location of molecules (proteins, lipids, DNA, RNA and others) inside a eukaryotic cell," he added. "It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the 'most detailed image of a human cell to date'—we never made this claim... it was appended to the image after it was stolen from our portfolio months ago."

"Although people are struck by the complexity and density of this environment, what we depict is actually very dilute in its concentration relative to a real cell! The image is an attempt to synthesize the mountains of structural data that labs from around the world have generated, and to visualize the great complexity and beauty of the cell's molecular choreography," McGill said.

The Ruling

Fact Check - False

False.

A viral image claimed to be the "most detailed image of a human cell to date" is not a real photograph.

FACT CHECK BY NEWSWEEK