It can be very difficult to visualize the inner structures of living things since we can’t see them directly. Our own bodies hide mysteries that usually are revealed only to surgeons or with imaging techniques such as X-rays. But the tiniest components of life: the structures of cells, viruses, and molecules—such as DNA and proteins—can seem quite mysterious until someone draws you a picture or carefully describes them to you. Physical models that we can look at in three dimensions or manipulate can help us get a better sense of what we cannot easily see. Everyday analogies also help us relate unfamiliar structures and molecules to objects around us—for example, DNA looks like a spiral staircase. But videos and animations really take things one step further to make the inner workings of living things seemingly come to life.
As a scientist interested in DNA, chromosomes, and other cellular components, I have relied heavily on the talents of both scientific illustrators and animators to help me visualize what I was learning about and working with in the lab. I am grateful for the people who can interpret complex scientific data and create dynamic images that help us all really “get it.” As an educator, I also regularly share diagrams and animations with my colleagues, teachers to help them learn.
One of my favorite biology animations to share with students was made back in 2006 by a team called BioVisions at Harvard University. “The Inner Life of the Cell” shows cell structures and activities related to the human immune system. I still really like this animation because it helps us appreciate the dynamic nature of cellular structures that is difficult to sense in a standard textbook illustration. For example, the Golgi apparatus—a stack of membranes that processes and ships proteins to destinations in cells—resembles a lava lamp in action in the animation, as bits of membrane separate from the edges and move to their destinations.
But the real star of the video is a wonderful type of molecule called a motor protein. Motor proteins “walk” along protein fibers called microtubules that can serve as “tracks” through a cell. The motor proteins carry cargo in spheres of membrane called vesicles, many of which bud off from the Golgi apparatus. Look for the motor protein in the link above, walking along carrying a blue sphere (vesicle). I describe motor proteins in class and even try to act them out myself, but there’s something about seeing this little protein brought to life in a video that captivates my students and helps them really remember it.
Recently, a GIF animation has resurfaced around the internet showing a charming motor protein carrying its cargo. Unfortunately, it was captioned incorrectly (and not attributed properly) on viral social media posts, and it got me thinking more about the reach of science videos. No, it’s not myosin carrying an endorphin—or happiness at a cellular level. It’s a motor protein, and it’s amazing just for being itself! The artist, John Liebler, created the original “Inner Life of the Cell” animation and the newer GIF and has more descriptions and animations of the kinesin motor protein on his website: Art of the Cell. I also discovered another really nice blog post on the kinesin confusion: check out easternblot.net for more on this mixup of the most internet-famous of motor proteins. Even Snopes has weighed in on the motor protein’s misidentification. For a little snippet of science animation, the humble motor protein sure gets around!
Another of my favorite mechanical doodads in cells are tiny molecular turbines called ATP synthase. Powered by a flow of protons through a channel in its structure, ATP synthase builds a molecule called ATP, which serves as a so-called energy “currency” that cells can “spend” widely to change the activity of many other molecules. For example, ATP acts as the main molecular “energy switch” that can activate the walking action of motor proteins like our friend kinesin. While textbook pictures help depict the many structural features of this complicated molecule that have been discovered by scientists in recent years, the talents of animators really bring ATP synthase to life and demonstrate how it assembles this important chemical energy molecule for cells.
A year ago, in the early weeks of my blog, I wrote about a recent finding in DNA research about how DNA is organized in a cell’s nucleus (see post “Rainbow DNA”). Scientists have continued making breakthroughs in understanding how different regions of a cell’s genetic information stay organized even when they aren’t coiled into the compact chromosomes we can observe with our own eyes under a microscope. One of the most compelling aspects of the news of this discovery was the colorful diagrams and the animation of the nucleus that was created and shared rather widely with the research findings. I continue to see models and animations of DNA organization popping up on my social media sites, as scientific models on this topic continue to be refined. (See a recent article in Quanta magazine for a summary and links to some research about new insights into how DNA is stored and moved by molecular motors through rings as part of its organization in the nucleus of the cell.) While these types of animations serve scientists themselves rather than a broader audience, they, too, move our understanding forward in ways that a description on paper just can’t quite match.
Scientists are taking advantage of our increasingly vast computing power to mine the depths of genomes and the explore the intricacies of cells like never before. We now have the ability to amass and analyze huge amounts of information to help us better understand living things. These same technological advances help us create ever more realistic print images, computer models, and animations of biological structures and processes. And so, scientific animation and illustration continues to evolve as an interdisciplinary career path for creative people who enjoy the challenge of bringing science to life on a digital screen. An article in the scientific journal Nature from 2011 provides an interesting perspective on these types of careers at the intersection of art and science. The right blend of creative spark and scientific know-how can even land you the title of “genius.” Scientific animator Drew Berry was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant in 2010 in recognition of his work in scientific animation. Check out his ideas in this interview with the MacArthur Foundation and his own TEDx talk on scientific animation to learn more about his fascinating work.
Now, several years later, it’s easy for me to just hop online and find an animation, or to download the many videos provided by educational publishers for me and my students, I truly appreciate the years of work of the scientists who put together a careful description of so many tiny structures and the artists who render them into something we can understand and admire. The combination of scientific insight with artistic vision creates a synergy of ideas that helps all of us better perceive what we cannot easily see. And as we continue to learn more about so many complex areas of science—from tiny molecules to distant galaxies—we all benefit from animations that spark our imaginations and help us stay curious about the world around us.