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.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (6 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
This is great; thank you.
posted by samofidelis at 4:51 PM on August 8, 2012

I remember reading Scientific American as a little kid, seeing illustrations like that myoglobin molecule, and thinking it was so packed with rich information that seemed almost comprehensible to me. Of course it wasn't.

But also consider what is not obvious when we see those illustrations on the web. Back in the early 60s, Scientific American was printed on a rotary letterpress. Those illustrations were printed in spot color, not CMYK.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:41 PM on August 8, 2012

Absolutely fantastic stuff. Geis' images are iconic, and line the halls of many a biology department. Another artist to check out is David S. Goodsell. In particular his watercolor Macrophage and Bacterium, which is a work of great intellectual effort, some amount of guessing, and detailed knowledge of biology.

Visualization of molecular biology structures is some of the hardest stuff in science. When I talk to people about biology and its challenges, the first question is often "why can't we just look and see what's there?" And why not? In every other are of life, from maps of the globe to pictures of distant galaxies to individual atoms spelling out IBM or whatever. But when it comes to large macromolecules and their higher order structures what we know, we know through innuendo, inference, and guessing. The tools simply don't exist to see what we want to see inside of cells, there is no microscope that can scan the surface of a cell and pick out Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor vs Estrogen Receptor, much less recognize if there's EGF or estrogen bound, or which proteins are on the other side of a cell membrane and if they're active or not.

Even Xray crystal structures of proteins, which are used as the gold standard of truth when it comes to knowing structure of proteins, somewhat commonly contain errors and even physical impossibilities when they're published and submitted to the databases. This is because you never see the coordinates of atoms, you see refraction patterns, and have to guess which configuration of atoms could result in the refraction patterns. We only get to see these amazing images through painstaking puzzle solving and guessing and checking, and then we need someone like Irving Geis to bring that to life. And even then with all sorts of visualization tools, we can't see with our eyes that the protein backbone is knotted, we need a computer program to check that for us.

Feynman lamented the lack of proper microscopes back in the mid 1900s, and the improvements have only been incremental since then. Xray crystallography can help us with the small stuff that we can produce in great purity and then form into a crystal, but go up one level and we're pretty much lost. For example, we know that DNA wraps around proteins called histones like strings on a bead, and we know that this forms into larger super-coils 30nm that we can see with electron microscopes, but we don't know how the strings on a bead coil up. This has great implications for predicting how genes get regulated, and how everything works in the cell, but we simply don't know, because the tools for "seeing" stuff at this resolution just doesn't exist. Techniques like cryo-EM are getting better, but the best results of that still rely on artificial situations where there are many copies of similar molecules; visualizing something like Macrophage and Bacterium are completely realistic.

So images like that Goodsell watercolor I linked to are impossible to create except through human imagination and reasoning. We can't see, but we can think, and we can reconstruct.
posted by Llama-Lime at 6:25 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pretty timely posting for me. I'm currently putting the final touch on a text on the representation of protein structure based on on a talk I gave last year at the ZKM (all of which is based on work I did over 10 years, which SKBW was kind enough to feature on the blue). Of course, I mention Geis in passing, although my knowledge about his work is unfortunately limited. For those interested in seeing the talk, it's number 16 on this page (wish it was on YouTube for easier access). Keep in mind that I gave this talk with a terrible hangover, following a night out with the fellow featured here, who blew my mind across multiple dimensions (His talk is number 15). BTW, if Sabrina Richards (or anybody who knows her e-mail) sees this, please memail me.
posted by bluefrog at 6:59 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

p.s., also PyMOL. Now having a vivid memory from back when I was taking biochem, zooming in and out of protein structures and going "pew pew pew!"

Did Geis ever draw stereograms? That was the other thing that boggled me - that structure papers from back in the day would sometimes actually have a stereogram of the protein, which you were supposed to resolve like a Magic Eye. (Tangentially, I just saw some awesome stereograms from what turned out to be the late 1800s. You viewed them with these special loaner glasses that the museum adorably referred to as "lorgnettes." Anyway.)

Great post (and comments); these are beautifully expressive.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:28 PM on August 8, 2012

Two-dimensional? Meh! Give me some 3-d etchy goodness.
posted by lalochezia at 6:44 AM on August 9, 2012

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