Lights! Cells! Action!

The antidote for people who think biology is just tedious memorization of terms? Movies.

I became a cell biologist because I was fascinated by the cell as a unit of life. I was transfixed by the eerie “intelligence” of cells, finely tuned machines whose intricacies we are still struggling to decipher, but whose complexities enable them to reproduce, to migrate, to differentiate, and to communicate.

Movies can help to tell the stories of cells, by showing in a visual manner just how dynamic life can be at the molecular and cellular level. I was an undergrad when I first saw the video below in a cell biology course taught by Douglass Forbes at UCSD. It helped to cement my love for cell biology. (“Go neutrophil go!”) More info about this video is available here.

But what about biology that we cannot record in motion – either because it is too small or too quick? That’s where animators come in. The New York Times has just published an article on molecular animation.

Building on decades of research and mountains of data, scientists and animators are now recreating in vivid detail the complex inner machinery of living cells.

Scientific illustrators, animators, and writers tackle a similar challenge in their work. How do we distill and communicate complex scientific information in a manner that is both appealing and accurate? David Goodsell, who is mentioned in the New York Times article, co-authored a piece for PLoS Biology discussing these concerns. As with science writing, it seems to me imperative that illustrators and animators have a science background or at least an appreciation for the nuances in science.

Among the examples of molecular animation discussed in the article are two movies by XVIVO, produced in collaboration for Harvard University. Would I be over-dramatic if I said that the following movie, “The Inner Life of the Cell”, brings me nearly to tears? The music just kills me.

“The Inner Life of the Cell” is also available here on XVIVO’s website. Their second movie, released this past October, is titled “Powering the Cell: Mitochondria” and is viewable here. Both movies are also available on Harvard’s BioVisions website.


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