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Complex proteins and superheroes all the same to 3D animation

Animation of cellular biomolecular condensates
Animation of cellular biomolecular condensates.

Biologists try to understand complex sub-molecular processes by creating movies in their heads. They're getting more help with that these days from Janet Iwasa, a biochemist at the University of Utah who uses 3-D animation software to visualize how cells and proteins work. Iwasa will speak March 7 at Illinois State University.

"We're bringing in a lot of different molecules and trying to make them move according to the way our collaborators think they should be," said Iwasa. "And sometimes things just don't fit. Things don't fit together. And that can be informative as well. In the past it has gotten our collaborators to look at their data, and collect some more and have some new findings."

It's the same software that animated movie producers use to depict superheroes. Iwasa said it's off the shelf and doesn't need tweaking, noting that inputting data is the same whether it's a movie or a complex protein.

It's more than just pure research, it has real-world benefits.

"We have animations on things like HIV and SARS-CoV2 that have immediate benefits in understanding, for example, how vaccines work," said Iwasa.

Before the animation software became available, Iwasa said researchers used to rely on written diagrams with arrows to try to visualize how bits of cells and proteins work. She said the animation process makes the work much easier and faster.

Iwasa’s award-winning illustrations and animations have appeared in scientific journals, including Nature, Science, and Cell. She was named a 2014 TED fellow, recognized as one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers” of 2014 by Foreign Policy magazine and chosen as one of the “100 Most Creative People” of 2012 by Fast Company magazine.

Iwasa will present the talk, “Animating Molecular Machines” for the R. Omar and Evelyn Rilett Family Life Sciences Lecture Series at ISU. The free program begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 7, in room 130 of Schroeder Hall.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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