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  • Writer's pictureelenaburan


Take a look at this drawing.

Can you tell what it is?

I'm a molecular biologist by training,

and I've seen a lot of these kinds of drawings.

They're usually referred to as a model figure,

a drawing that shows how we think

a cellular or molecular process occurs.

This particular drawing is of a process

called clathrin-mediated endocytosis.

It's a process by which a molecule can get

from the outside of the cell to the inside

by getting captured in a bubble or a vesicle

that then gets internalized by the cell.

There's a problem with this drawing, though,

and it's mainly in what it doesn't show.

From lots of experiments,

from lots of different scientists,

we know a lot about what these molecules look like,

how they move around in the cell,

and that this is all taking place

in an incredibly dynamic environment.


So in collaboration with a clathrin expert Tomas Kirchhausen,

we decided to create a new kind of model figure

that showed all of that.

So we start outside of the cell.

Now we're looking inside.

Clathrin are these three-legged molecules

that can self-assemble into soccer-ball-like shapes.

Through connections with a membrane,

clathrin is able to deform the membrane

and form this sort of a cup

that forms this sort of a bubble, or a vesicle,

that's now capturing some of the proteins

that were outside of the cell.

Proteins are coming in now that basically pinch off this vesicle,

making it separate from the rest of the membrane,

and now clathrin is basically done with its job,

and so proteins are coming in now —

we've covered them yellow and orange —

that are responsible for taking apart this clathrin cage.

And so all of these proteins can get basically recycled

and used all over again.


These processes are too small to be seen directly,

even with the best microscopes,

so animations like this provide a really powerful way

of visualizing a hypothesis.


Here's another illustration,

and this is a drawing of how a researcher might think

that the HIV virus gets into and out of cells.

And again, this is a vast oversimplification

and doesn't begin to show

what we actually know about these processes.


You might be surprised to know

that these simple drawings are the only way

that most biologists visualize their molecular hypotheses.


Because creating movies of processes

as we think they actually occur is really hard.

I spent months in Hollywood learning 3D animation software,

and I spend months on each animation,

and that's just time that most researchers can't afford.

The payoffs can be huge, though.

Molecular animations are unparalleled

in their ability to convey a great deal of information

to broad audiences with extreme accuracy.

And I'm working on a new project now

called "The Science of HIV"

where I'll be animating the entire life cycle

of the HIV virus as accurately as possible

and all in molecular detail.

The animation will feature data

from thousands of researchers collected over decades,

data on what this virus looks like,

how it's able to infect cells in our body,

and how therapeutics are helping to combat infection.


Over the years, I found that animations

aren't just useful for communicating an idea,

but they're also really useful

for exploring a hypothesis.

Biologists for the most part are still using a paper and pencil

to visualize the processes they study,

and with the data we have now, that's just not good enough anymore.

The process of creating an animation

can act as a catalyst that allows researchers

to crystalize and refine their own ideas.

One researcher I worked with

who works on the molecular mechanisms

of neurodegenerative diseases

came up with experiments that were related

directly to the animation that she and I worked on together,

and in this way, animation can feed back into the research process.


I believe that animation can change biology.

It can change the way that we communicate with one another,

how we explore our data

and how we teach our students.

But for that change to happen,

we need more researchers creating animations,

and toward that end, I brought together a team

of biologists, animators and programmers

to create a new, free, open-source software —

we call it Molecular Flipbook —

that's created just for biologists

just to create molecular animations.

From our testing, we've found that it only takes 15 minutes

for a biologist who has never touched animation software before

to create her first molecular animation

of her own hypothesis.

We're also building an online database

where anyone can view, download and contribute

their own animations.

We're really excited to announce

that the beta version of the molecular animation

software toolkit will be available for download today.

We are really excited to see what biologists will create with it

and what new insights they're able to gain

from finally being able to animate

their own model figures.


Thank you.


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