A Cinematic Look Inside Our Bodies

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You may remember watching "The Inner Life of the Cell," an animation of white blood cells attacking an infection, some years ago. Since then molecular animation has continued to develop, becoming more scientifically valuable and visually impressive. Like, very impressive.

The latest work from Xvivo, the scientific animation company that produced "The Inner Life of a Cell" in 2006, is "Powering the Cell: Mitochondria." Watch it above in 720p. It's gorgeous.


But such animations aren't just eye candy, and they don't just serve to dazzle regular old people into stopping and considering the microscopic marvels contained inside their bodies. Increasingly, these animations are being used by leading scientists to get a better sense of what's really going on with the cells they work with. As solid as previous imaging techniques had been, they say there's nothing quite like seeing the cells in action:

All that we had before - microscopy, X-ray crystallography - were all snapshots," said Tomas Kirchhausen, a professor in cell biology at Harvard Medical School and a frequent collaborator with Dr. Iwasa [a molecular animator]. "For me, the animations are a way to glue all this information together in some logical way. By doing animation I can see what makes sense, what doesn't make sense. They force us to confront whether what we are doing is realistic or not." For example, Dr. Kirchhausen studies the process by which cells engulf proteins and other molecules. He says animations help him picture how a particular three-legged protein called clathrin functions within the cell.


The animations are typically produced with software like Maya, pulling data from publicly available resources like the Protein Data Bank, a database holding 3D coordinates for every atom in some 63,000 proteins. And while some scientists warn that the animations rely on a problematic amount of guesswork, others see them as an essential tool in a discipline awash in new data.

In any event, it seems likely that scientific animations will be integral to the next generation of scientists studying our inner-space: a cutting edge digital textbook called Life on Earth, backed by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson among others, is currently in development and will incorporate several detailed animations as a core part of its curriculum. And watching "Powering the Cell: Mitochondria," I have to agree—I don't think my cells have ever looked better. [NYT]