The picture above looks like it could be a satellite image of Earth – an impact crater perhaps, or tectonic cracks in the landscape. But although the image comes via Google Maps, it actually shows an extreme close-up of the human body – specifically, a hipbone of someone with arthritis.

A team at the University of New South Wales in Australia, working in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic and Brown and Stanford universities, has begun using the technology of Google Maps to crunch terabytes of data collected from electron microscopes. The project also uses a German imaging technology that was originally intended to find defects in silicon wafers but works just as well for the human body.

Using Google's algorithms, they layer a series of images on top of each another to create one zoomable picture of the human body. They can zoom from a view that is a few centimeters wide – a close-up of a joint, for example – to a view nanometers wide – an extreme close-up of a cell. Melissa Knothe Tate, who is leading the study at UNSW, compares the zoom potential to going from Earth View to Street View.

Knothe Tate is using the technology to study osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis that often erodes protective cartilage in the knees, hips, hands and spine. The technology gives scientists a new and very direct view into how a cell’s health influences a disease like osteoporosis – allowing them to zoom between the cracks in the bone down to the weak connections in the blood vessels that are thought to have caused them. Knothe Tate says the technology allows scientists to compress 25 years of research into just a few weeks, and hopefully develop new treatments that can stave off the disease.

The University of New South Wales is not the first to try this technique: Researchers at Harvard University and Heidelberg in Germany are using a similar process to map neural connections in mice.

And NYU School of Medicine has used the Google Maps programming interface to develop a “virtual microscope” teaching tool, allowing medical students to study cells and tissue with computers, rather than finding, staining, lighting and focusing their sample under the microscope.

But Knothe Tate says this is the first project to create this kind of zoomable map in humans, showing that Google Maps can do more than just let office workers spy on herds of buffalo from their desks.