Visual Science: How the World's Best Scientific Illustrations Are Made

At the university, Ivan had the opportunity to compare our textbooks with foreign ones. And the first thing that caught my eye was how much everything in Western textbooks was more clearly and clearly illustrated. “But even in these publications, chemistry, biology, anatomy, requiring clear and understandable visualization, were presented at the level of computer graphics development of the 1980s, ” Ivan told us. “Hollywood, the advertising and gaming industries use technologies much more advanced, while the visualization of complex objects and phenomena of the world for science, education and technology has remained in the past.” So the idea came to visualize the structure of proteins and macromolecular complexes at a new level. “At first, we did not have a goal for someone to buy our models, ” Ivan adds, “there was simply a desire to raise this area to a new level.”

Ivan Konstantinov, a graduate of the Faculty of Biology, Moscow State University, founded the company in 2007, earning “start-up capital” at the first graphic station by laying cables in Lyubertsy.

“He sat for days and nights, did and did until he realized that he had reached the limit of his abilities in 3D modeling, ” Ivan recalls. - Then a man appeared in the team who began to help with the models. Then scientific expertise was lacking - and Yuri Stefanov joined us, who has since been in charge of the scientific field, observing the accuracy and reliability of the basic values ​​of Visual Science. ” Little by little, the team began to replenish with specialists in IT, graphic design, marketing and international communications, teachers, methodologists, game designers ... But first, the team was faced with the problems of monetization. “What if you are tiny and are in Russia, and your main customers are large companies and university centers in the USA and Europe? - says Ivan. “Our desire for maximum scientific certainty, the already developed algorithms and technologies, and, of course, the case helped.”

B-shape DNA The most common spatial form of DNA: there are about ten nucleotide pairs for each coil of the helix. The diameter is 2 nm, the depth of the grooves is 0.85 and 0.75 nm.

Visual Science drew attention to the problem in scientific visualization related to the accurate representation of macromolecular structures, such as viruses, protein complexes, cellular organelles, etc. They are often too large to be studied by such "subtle" methods as X-ray diffraction analysis, but while being too small for approaches such as cryoelectron tomography or microscopy. “It turns out that for fairly well-studied viruses that matter to all of humanity - such as HIV, influenza or Ebola - it is impossible to get a model with atomic and even molecular detailing using just one method, ” Ivan explains. “For example, for HIV, the structure of the individual components is known, there is biochemical and virological information about their interaction with each other, but there was no high-detailed picture of the virus itself.” These data, like puzzle pieces, were collected for about a year before the first reliable HIV model was obtained in Visual Science. In 2010, she was recognized as the best scientific illustration in the world according to the journal Science and the National Science Foundation of the United States. The image of the virus fell on the covers of leading scientific journals, including Nature Medicine, and became popular in the media, appearing in such authoritative publications as the NY Times and Washington Post. Worldwide recognition has helped open many doors and receive orders from large companies.

Reliable 3D-models of the heart and nearby vessels, internal organs and the skeleton of a frog. Images were created on the basis of computer microtomography data on preparations of a grass frog obtained jointly with the Department of Vertebrate Zoology of Moscow State University.

Correct positioning

“We quickly realized that our customers needed not just visualization, but a certain service: to convey the essence of their complex development without loss of meaning or to promote their high-tech product, ” says Ivan. - So we have a department that began to engage in marketing of high-tech companies. His task was to attract the attention of the right audience to the activities of our client through the methods that we know best in the world - scientific visualization. ” Customers were divided into two large groups: the corporate sector - large international companies that have internal and external communication tasks, and small startups that create the whole image and positioning from scratch. For them, Visual Science helps to do everything from corporate identity to packaging development, promotional materials and presentation at exhibitions. “Since we ourselves are from the industry, we know many nuances, ” Ivan smiles, “the correct look, the right communications.”

An augmented reality educational poster prepared for the Polytechnic Museum. In the application “Posters of the Polytechnic” you can see the frog volumetric, consider individual organ systems from different angles.

But the most favorite topic of Konstantinov is education, he is ready to talk about it for hours. Visual Science illustrates textbooks and books, creates educational videos, posters, applications, and scientific animation. And the hottest area here is virtual (VR) and augmented (AR) reality. “Initially, we worked with high-quality 3D models, ” Ivan explains, “which still had to be“ rammed ”into the two-dimensional world of paper or screen. We could not fully convey all the advantages of the original three-dimensional model. And VR makes it possible to show all this in all its glory.

Immunoglobulin IgG1 Antibodies involved in the immune response. Two “light” L-chains of the molecule (red) and two “heavy” H-chains (gray) end with a pair of variable Fab domains (upper) that bind antigens. You can also see the yellow sulfur atoms needed to hold the chains together.

“We have a huge advantage - we always made models very honestly, ” Ivan opens the computer screen, “I was asked why, for example, you count the virus membrane of one hundred thousand individual molecules, instead of just applying a high-quality texture? But we wanted to always have the opportunity to demonstrate the object on the other hand, make sections, remove the membrane and show the matrix under it ... If I make a section of the skull, I want to see the internal structure of the bone. And this honesty was in demand in virtual reality. ” The material that Visual Science has been building for many years is perfect for the new VR technology. The user can take any model, twist, look from all sides, zoom in - and see every detail as it really is.

Homunculus microbioreactor Explosion diagram of an instrument for growing cell cultures in microscopic reservoirs through which a nutrient medium is pumped.

The company has invested significant resources in a threefold increase in its computing power, and in the near future will increase it several times more. “We are participating with great interest in educational projects with elements of entertainment, in what is called Edutainment, ” Ivan continues. - To motivate children to embark on the path of scientific knowledge of the world through the verification of facts, through the construction of critical hypotheses, the evaluation of sources ... Not just see and forget, but move on. All successful scientists and technological entrepreneurs with whom I spoke agree that their path began either with a talented teacher or with a vivid emotional experience of science. And we can already create such an experience. ”

Frog problems

One of the projects was supported by the Moscow Polytechnical Museum, with the participation of which educational posters for schools with elements of augmented reality were created in Visual Science. By installing a special application on your smartphone, you can see these pictures in a new way, having received a completely new, fascinating layer of information. This task turned out to be far from as simple as it looked at first.

Crispr Systems Endonuclease Cas9 (dark gray) introduces double-stranded cuts in the DNA region (purple), complementary to the associated RNA guide (green).

“Look at the poster with the anatomy of an amphibian, ” Ivan explains. - We needed a reliable model of a frog, on which we could see the skeleton, circulatory system, internal organs. It turned out that there are no materials sufficient to create such a model anywhere in the world! As a result, our guys carried out their own work, having studied the frog in an X-ray tomograph of high power and resolution. " But this was not enough: soft tissue with their approximately equal density in the tomograph is almost indistinguishable. Therefore, a new technology for impregnating tissues with contrast agents was developed in Visual Science’s own laboratory.

Human papilloma virus. The envelope consists of two proteins, the main (L1, yellow) and minor (L2, dark gray). A ring DNA molecule (orange) is packed inside a virus particle using host cell nucleosomes (gray).

As a result, accurate images of the frog organs were obtained with a fantastic resolution: even capillaries of the lungs and a spiral valve in her tiny heart are visible on the model. And when a student points his smartphone’s camera at a poster containing a general autopsy plan, he can switch between organ systems. Having chosen the circulatory system, see its three-dimensional picture; having chosen a skeleton - to consider voluminous bones up to miniature phalanges of frog fingers. And going around the poster, he can consider all this from different angles.

In the matrix insulin RNA, 333 nucleotides: based on it, ribosomes synthesize preproinsulin molecules containing 110 amino acid residues. This protein is “being finalized” by other cellular enzymes, so there are already 51 amino acids in the finished insulin.

“In the battle for the attention of children, modern textbooks lose to the creators of the games that the best designers and programmers in the world are working on, ” says Ivan. - These posters are our first attempt to return children's attention to the topic of knowledge. The genre is not simple, it requires enormous methodological and technological resources, and I can’t say that everything works exactly as we would like, but the first step has been taken, and the next will be at a new level. ” Meet me there - with children and virtual reality glasses.

Article “Origin of species. How the world's best scientific illustrations are created ”was published in the journal Popular Mechanics (No. 11, November 2016).


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