PAGE 1 OF 2
Not Your Ordinary 'Toons
by Susan Gaidos
Animation can be an effective tool for visualizing biology in action. This series of stills, taken from a student-generated virtual reality model, shows a snapshot along the developmental timeline of an insect's leg. Bands of color mark the choreographed changes in gene expression as the leg develops from a flat disc of cells to a three-dimensional limb.
Midway through the animation, Carey R. Phillips points to his computer screen. "There," he says, as flecks of yellow appear at the tip of an insect's developing leg. "These areas show where genes for limb formation are being expressed at this point in time."
What started as a flat disc of single cells has divided, multiplied, and rearranged itself to create the likeness of a three-dimensional leg bud. As yellow splotches appear briefly, a second segment sprouts from the tip of the growing limb. And as the object telescopes outward to form an eerily lifelike, multisegmented leg, other colored patterns—red, blue, green—emerge and fade. The colorful stains illustrate carefully orchestrated patterns of gene expression, part of the process of ensuring that each segment of the limb develops properly. Students can rotate the developing model, fly through it, or even "meet" other students within the model and discuss it, all in real time.
This virtual reality model is just one of several interactive programs created by Phillips and his students at Bowdoin College that take viewers—via animation and virtual reality—through the insides of organs and cells, as a way to help them visualize biology in action. Based on real-world data that students have gathered during long hours peering through a microscope or from reviewing the scientific literature, the animations simulate complex biological processes such as cell division and cell signaling. The animations help students to visualize difficult-to-grasp scientific constructs.
But viewing these animations is no passive experience. With funding from HHMI, Phillips has been developing new ways to use virtual reality to create worlds in which students interact with the objects under study. In one virtual world, for example, students enhance the virtual model by "painting" new information on it, adding data gathered from their own research or from published findings. With such tools, Phillips says, students can readily experiment with modeled processes under various conditions and can view complex sets of databases in ways that even scientists previously couldn't do.
Phillips discovered a new use for art while doing graduate work in embryology. In a study of RNA in developing eggs, he struggled to understand how the concentrations changed over time. "The concept was difficult for me to grasp, and then, one day, I suddenly got it. By visualizing the development in three dimensions, and then adding a fourth dimension for time, I could see exactly what was happening in my mind's eye from any perspective in the developing embryo."
Image: Courtesy of Kristine Furic / Carey Phillips Lab