Sunday, October 28, 2012

The science and art of David Goodsell

Portion of an E. coli cell. Image courtesy of David Goodsell.
At the University of Lausanne, when I was a biology student, our great professor Jacques Dubochet tried to instil in us some sense of the physics at play in the biological world. He would ask us questions such as: “So, how thick is the plasmic membrane?” or “How fast will a protein diffuse in the cell?”.  And we would be like: “Huhhh….” So I’m convinced my former professor must be a great fan of the work of David S. Goodsell.

David Goodsell is associate professor of molecular biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He is an expert in the structure of biomolecules, and he uses computer simulations to illustrate molecular organizations and interactions.  But what makes his work truly unique is the use of classic watercolor painting to represent cells and their compartments: anything from a bacterium to the Golgi apparatus of a eukaryotic cell, nerve synapses or even viral particles. At odds with the oversimplistic representations of cellular organization that many biologists enjoy, David Goodsell’s drawings offer a real sense of what the biophysical world is. And did I mention they were beautiful too? His websiteMolecular Art/Molecular Scienceis a great resource to learn more about his work.

Published by Springer
I also warmly recommend his book, “The machinery of life” (2009), which is packed with gorgeous computer-generated macromolecules and watercolor paintings of cells. The work of Goodsell is a unique blend of science and art, and it can be equally appreciated by the scientist and by the layman.

It is a fact that we cannot see biomolecules, even with the most powerful electron microscope. They exist in a different world than the one of human experience, to such an extent that one might even wonder whether “to see” a molecule means anything at all. In the preface of his book, Goodsell writes:
“I created the illustrations in this book to help bridge this gulf and allow us to see the molecular structures of cells, if not directly, then in an artistic rendition.”
ATP synthase. Illustration courtesy of David Goodsell.
Goodsell renders the inner parts of cells scientifically as well as artistically, since he took care to represent the number and size of molecules as accurately as possible based on current knowledge. Personally I find such representations much helpful, because too often I think (and draw) about bacterial cell as simplistic models. For instance, I excavated the following illustration from one of my presentation: 

This illustration is definitely NOT by David Goodsell.

It was made with powerpoint, and you can see that my paramount artistic talent is to use the “glow” effect around the cell. I wanted to represent a bacterial cell (Gram negative) with its chromosome and a couple of proteins (two present as dimers). It is obvious that this is a model, an extremely simplified version of reality that voluntarily omits most components of the cells and that doesn't care at all about proportions. Now compare with the E. coli image at the top of this post!

My representation, however, is not only simple because I lack artistic skills, but also because I wanted to focus on few elements. The problem is that I (and probably many other biologists) use such representations so often that I fear a small part of my brain may be fooled into thinking that cells are really like that. [I think that the proper, great-to-use-at-cocktail-parties word for this is ‘reification’.] But I found the perfect antidote in Dr. Goodsell's work!

HIV in blood serum. Illustration courtesy of David Goodsell.
You can also see more beautiful paintings by Goodsell in the second issue of the online magazine Zygote Quarterly, in which he also gives an interview about his work. [This online magazine is really worth a look! It focuses on science and design, and shows great pictures and illustrations.]

To conclude, I’d like to cite Goodsell again from the preface of “the machinery of life”:
“For the scientist, it is my hope that this book will continue to provide a touchstone for intuition. Please use the illustrations, as I have, to help imagine biological molecules in their proper context: packed into living cells.”
I certainly do!



  1. Hi Robin,
    Thanks for this. I used to have a poster of Inside the Human Cell on my wall but I lost it along the way. I'm very happy to have the links and the artist's name so I can get another copy.
    Nice blog too!

    1. Thanks Mary,
      David Goodsell's work is truly unique, so I'm sure it looks great on a poster!