Watch: A cellular biologist animates the life cycle of HIV in this hypnotic video / by Karen Frances Eng

While the musical soundtrack is wholly a product of the imagination, everything else in this spellbinding animation of the HIV virus — created by Janet Iwasa — was based on the findings of researchers.

University of Utah cellular biologist Janet Iwasa has spent much of the past four years engaged in discussions with dozens of HIV researchers. The usual product of these endeavors would be a paper in an academic journal, or maybe a textbook, but for Iwasa, a Senior TED Fellow (Talk: How animations help scientists test a hypothesis) … it became a video animation that shows, for the first time, the life cycle of HIV at molecular scale.

  Animated and narrated by Janet Iwasa (Department of Biochemistry, University of Utah)

Animated and narrated by Janet Iwasa (Department of Biochemistry, University of Utah)

“Most of the knowledge that scientists produce is locked away in jargon-filled publications, difficult to read even for people slightly outside of their field,” she says. “In general, science needs better ways of communicating our research, in ways accessible to everyone.” Her work is an attempt to bring microbiology into the mainstream, and to showcase the information synthesized from many labs working on different aspects of the same disease.

 The HIV capsid (the protein shell of a virus) enters a T cell.

The HIV capsid (the protein shell of a virus) enters a T cell.

Why HIV? Iwasa became interested in animation while getting her PhD at UC San Francisco. After graduating, she took a 10-week course in animation in Hollywood. Since then, she has created visualizations of many scientific processes, including the origins of life, the workings of CRISPR, the contents of dust, the motility of bacteria, and how proteins detangle other proteins. “I chose HIV for this particular project because it has been well-funded and is very well-studied, so there is a vast amount of information available to create a reasonably accurate interpretation,” she says.

But there’s no central clearinghouse of knowledge about the biology of HIV. “Different researchers study different aspects of the biology — how the virus enters and exits a cell, what’s happening in the nucleus, what’s happening in the cytoplasm, how the RNA moves around, and so on,” she says. Through involvement with CHEETAH, an NIH-funded research center based at the University of Utah that studies HIV structural biology and similar groups, she talked to “about 30 HIV researchers at length” about her project, gathering ideas about what to show. Then she used Autodesk software to build her animation.

 The HIV capsid moves towards the nucleus of the T cell, using the cell’s microtubules as a kind of highway system.

The HIV capsid moves towards the nucleus of the T cell, using the cell’s microtubules as a kind of highway system.

Her animation marries artistic license and scientific fact. “Since most molecules and cells are colorless, the colors I selected were arbitrary,” Iwasa says. “I generally made my choices to maximize both aesthetics and clarity. For example, I tried to visually cluster proteins of related functions by using hue, but changed the saturation to differentiate between them.” The shapes and locations of the molecular components are true to life, based on data from the scientists she spoke to. “Structural biologists can figure out the shapes of proteins using X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy,” Iwasa says. “Cell biologists look for where proteins are located in a cell, using light microscopy and fluorescence. With those methods, we can figure out that they’re in a particular part of a cell and how many there are. Then, biochemists can tell us how proteins connect.”

However, the precise motions depicted inside the cell are a best guess. While advanced technologies allow us to view these tiny proteins, “such methods take only a snapshot, frozen in time. Unfortunately, you can’t use these methods to look at proteins in action in a living cell.” As a result, scientists rely on indirect experimentation to start visualizing what exactly occurs at each stage of the HIV life cycle. “We can only say what we think is going on, based on the best evidence we have,” says Iwasa. She compares the process to a CSI, where researchers gather various pieces of data that they piece together to form a picture that tells a story.

 Different RNAs begin leaving the nucleus of the T cell.

Different RNAs begin leaving the nucleus of the T cell.

Source: https://ideas.ted.com/watch-a-cellular-bio...