Painting the first of life's molecules, circa 1961
August 8, 2012 4:31 PM Subscribe
These days, it's easy to take visualizations of biological molecules for granted, what with the easy availability of an ever-increasing supply of high-resolution X-ray and neutron crystallography data, as well as freely available software that render them into beautiful and useful images that help us understand how life works. The lack of computers and computer networks in the mid-1950s made creating these illustrations a painstaking collaboration, requiring an artist's craftsmanship and aesthetic sense, as well as, most importantly, the critical ability to visualize the concepts that scientists wish to communicate. One such scientific artist was Irving Geis, who painted the first biological macromolecule obtained through X-ray data: an iconic watercolor representation of the structure of sperm whale myoglobin, as seen in the third slide of this slideshow of selected pieces. His first effort was a revolutionary work of informatics, including coloring and shading effects that emphasized important structural and functional features of the myoglobin protein, simultaneously moving the less-important aspects into the background, all while stressing simplicity and beauty throughout. The techniques that Geis developed in this and subsequent works influenced the standards for basic 2D protein visualization that are used today.
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