HIV As You've Never Seen It Before

It's hard to visualise what something as small and complex as HIV actually looks like. But now Ivan Konstantinov and his team from Visual Science have created the most-detailed 3D model of the virus to date (see video above).

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An image of this visualisation just won first place in the 2010 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored jointly by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF).The model contains 17 different viral and cellular proteins and the membrane incorporates 160 thousand lipid molecules, of 8 different types, in the same proportions as in an actual HIV particle. It denotes the parts encoded by the virus's own genome in orange, while grey shades indicate structures taken into the virus when it interacts with a human cell.

To create the visualisation, the team consulted over 100 articles on HIV from leading science journals and talked to experts in the field. Then they reconstructed viral proteins from X-rays before assembling the structure of an entire HIV particle. The final appearance was achieved by experienced designers and 3D graphics specialists. Thanks to software and algorithms developed by the company, the model was completed in about three months.

The illustration was featured on the cover of Nature Medicine in September 2010, as part of a special issue prepared by the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. But because of the high resolution of the model, Konstantinov says it is suitable for a range of formats, from posters to animations and interactive applications for web and mobile platforms. For the moment, they plan to use it in schools and to popularise science research. But this model, and others created by the company such as a visualisation of the swine flu virus, are sure to be useful in medical research.

If you would like to see other winning entries from the 2010 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, check out our online gallery here.

HIV As You've Never Seen It Before New Scientist reports, explores and interprets the results of human endeavour set in the context of society and culture, providing comprehensive coverage of science and technology news.