Visualizing Our Cellular Structure, In Watercolor

Ever seen the inside of a Mycoplasma cell? Prepare yourself.

Molecular illustration was born when scientists developed the ability to actually see the structures that make up biological life. In the mid ’50s, scientists like Rosalind Franklin began using X-rays to decipher the structure of DNA, discovering (after several incorrect attempts) that the building blocks took the shape of a double helix. Once a reliable method for viewing molecular structures was in place, scientists raced to visualize the results, eager to share their findings with the community, and with the world at large. The result was a classic data visualization problem: How you do visually communicate incredibly complex structures to the general public?

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David S. Goodsell, an associate professor at Scripps, grew up painting watercolors around the same time that Franklin and her team were carrying out their work. It wasn’t until graduate school, though, that he applied his background in the arts to his research. Goodsell’s graduate adviser was the pioneering structural biologist Richard Dickerson, who along with legendary biological artist Irving Geis published a seminal book of molecular illustrations called The Structure and Action of Proteins. Geis and Dickerson are credited with bringing the rapidly emerging field to a broader audience, using simple illustrative tools. As Goodsell’s graduate adviser, Dickerson encouraged him to use his art background in his work, which at the time was focused on developing drugs that bind to DNA for use in chemotherapy.

That was in the ’80s, when digital graphics were first emerging, and Goodsell lept headfirst into the world of early 3-D modeling. “But as a postdoc, I was challenging myself to illustrate bigger molecular landscapes that were simply too complex to be computationally modeled,” he remembers. Out of simple necessity, he turned back to hand illustration, creating watercolor details of nerve cells and other biological structures. Today, Goodsell uses a combination of digital and hand-drawn techniques to depict vibrant, detailed models of everything from E.coli molecules to HIV-infected blood cells. His work has been crucial in communicating findings from the rapidly evolving field, which in its native language would be all but indecipherable to the layperson (read: this blogger). Goodsell’s paintings are found in medical textbooks and gallery walls with equal frequency, and have inspired a cult-like following from fellow researchers and non-scientists alike. A book of his illustrations, The Machinery of Life, is in its second edition.

Speaking over the phone, Goodsell explains that molecular illustration is changing as our technological capabilities increase. “Scientists are just now coming up with methods to computationally model these complex structures,” he says, pointing to a recent PhD student named Graham Johnson for reference. Johnson is working to combine the custom-built software currently used by scientists with Maya, the dynamic modeling platforms used by architects and animators. “The paintings I do take a up a lot of time, and when you’re finished, you have a static image,” says Goodsell. “What Graham is doing, on the other hand, is great for research and education because you can incorporate dynamics and really use it as a tool, merging the two worlds of outreach and research.”

Goodsell sees the future of his field in an incoming generation of scientist/artists like Johnson. “Now we’re seeing a whole new crop of students who have a foot in both camps,” he adds. “They have strong art backgrounds, and a grip on the science, too, and that’s really powerful.”

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.