When I first saw the video “Inner Life of the Cell,” I think I may have forgotten to breathe for the entire three minutes that it is long.
These movies are amazing. They are a product of the newly emerging field of molecular animation, in which cell biologists who have also mastered the skills of computer animation create videos depicting molecular processes in motion. A new project is being undertaken by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson to develop a digital biology textbook. This book will be entitled “Life on Earth,” and will include these complex visualizations as a central aspect of the curriculum.
While these molecular animations are awe inspiring, as a skeptic-in-training, I wonder how accurate they can truly be. Do these animations belong on YouTube, or are they worthy of inclusion in biology course curriculum?
Many scientists worry that these visualizations may involve too much imagination and not enough solid scientific evidence. In an interview with the New York Times, Peter Walter from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute states that, “some animations are clearly more Hollywood than useful display… it can become hard to distinguish between what is data and what is fantasy.”
While the molecular events presented in these animations take place at a scale beneath the wavelength of light, scientists are still able to visualize these events in real time. A recent study published in the journal Nature visualizes the molecular “walking” mechanism of the myosin V protein using high-speed atomic force microscopy, a type of microscopy that can detect single molecules in real time. Myosins are a family of motor proteins that are involved in various functions including muscle contraction and vesicle transport. Myosin V translocates - or walks - down cellular tracks composed of actin proteins, and functions as a cargo transporter in cells. The videos published in the Nature paper can be viewed here.
These videos are bona fide science, demonstrating the exact velocity of movement, step size, and the forces involved in binding and unbinding of the “foot” and the actin track.
Another walking motor mechanism very similar to that of myosin V is employed by the motor protein kinesin, depicted in “The Inner Life of the Cell: Explained” (at about 3:57).
When considering what should be included in future biology curriculum, I believe these two very different types of videos can work together beautifully. The videos produced using high-speed atomic force microscopy offer precise data about molecular mechanisms, such as motor protein “walking”, and can be used to shape the accuracy of the molecular animations, which offer beauty, inspiration, and simultaneous visualization of various molecular mechanisms and details.
So let’s keep the molecular animations on YouTube and in the classroom, but let’s also include the real data. Allowing the two to work together can provide a powerful new avenue for learning and understanding of molecular mechanisms.