IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Molecular movies go Hollywood

Biologists are using the kind of animation technology you might see in a multimillion-dollar "Toy Story" movie to show the general public how molecules inside a cell work.

The resulting high-tech visual aids have found their way into thousands of high-school classrooms, and they've been watched millions of times on video-sharing websites such as YouTube. That's the kind of success Robert Lue, director of life sciences education at Harvard University and the creator of the BioVisions project, has been hoping to achieve.

"It is very much about how do you put science in context, how do you take advantage of the fact that we are visual animals, that we in fact understand the world through our eyes to a significant degree, and apply that reality of who we are as animals to the way in which we perceive science," he told me.

Behind the scenes

The team's latest animation, "Powering the Cell: Mitochondria" shows how molecules inside the cell convert food into energy. You can watch it by clicking on the arrow above. Here's an earlier video, "The Inner Life of the Cell," which shows white blood cells attacking infections in the body:

To make the animations, Lue and scientific collaborators take mountains of data about the workings of the molecules inside a cell, synthesize all that information, and create visual models in their minds of what it would look like. They then communicate these visions to animators.

"We are scientists that translate data into visual models, but we also, to a significant degree, are film directors," he told me. "In the same way that a film director has to establish point of view, has to establish in a particular scene what you see, how would particular characters behave, what would be the most compelling or dramatic perspective ... we also have to create that as well."

The animators turn that vision into a digital reality, using their expertise in what kinds of motions can be created, how to render the surfaces of molecules, and what colors to use.

Impact on science education

In addition to striving for scientific accuracy, the collaboration is after an end product that is useful as a science communication tool. That means making editorial decisions about what to leave on the cutting-room floor.

"If we showed everything in real time that would be a simulation, not a representation, and a simulation of reality would be so complex that it would fail as a communication tool," Lue said.

For example, the density of proteins inside a cell is so great that if the animations included them all, nothing would be visible. "You need to thin things by more than a hundredfold, so that you can focus on the players that are the primary characters for a particular sequence," he noted.

Lue is particularly proud of a survey showing that the molecular animations are used in 78 percent of high schools, a finding that he says shows the animations enable students to think about biology in a new light and "understand the relevance of the unseen world."

And they’ve achieved this with a budget that’s in the tens of thousands of dollars, not the millions available to animators in Hollywood.

More stories on the science of movies and animations:

John Roach is a contributing writer for Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).