Monday, December 10, 2012

Cinema verité - biology style

Animations of scientific principles are becoming more and more popular as a way of condensing complex data into an easily accessible format, particularly in the field of biology. Nonetheless, a recent article in Nature has raised a number of interesting points about how the visualisation of biological processes should not be taken lightly. Biology is unnervingly complex and there is still much that we don't understand - how are we to know how much of an animation is based on actual data and how much is just 'filling in the gaps'? This is not limited to the layperson - humans are very visual creatures and we are more easily swayed by pictures than words, experts are no exception. This is not new, journals have included idealised representations of biological processes for decades, but the advancement in computer animation has opened the door for more sophisticated animations that may imply a more thorough understanding where one does not exist. 

That said, I don't believe that researchers actively seek to mislead when presenting their findings in animated form, rather that they have to take the necessary steps to complete the movie - inherently requiring some artistic licence. And, for the most part, the bits being filled in are done so with reasonable scientific assumptions in mind and are not wild fantasy. The medium is an exciting one, and one that will hopefully play a significant role in not only disseminating scientific understanding, but also help to further research by highlighting gaps in our understanding. We must, however, always be vigilant when interpreting these animations as they are exactly that - animations - and not actual footage of molecular biology.

An excellent example of biological animation is the 'Inner Life of a Cell' video by a group in Harvard. I love this video, which depicts the events that occur upon the activation of T cell, and is pretty accurate in that almost everything show is backed up by real evidence. The 'motor protein' kinesin at 3:40 is particularly impressive because its mechanism of 'walking' along microtubules is backed up by extensive structural and biochemical studies, yet it just looks so much like a drunk guy who's been pulled over by the police and is trying to walk in a straight line! If you get the chance, I really recommend watching the video and reading the article mentioned above. Enjoy!

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