The Inner Life of a Cell

Someone I work with went to SIGGRAPH this week and posted a link to a cool movie he saw. SIGGRAPH (which stands for Special Interest Group Graphics) is the biggest computer graphics conference on the calendar, and it happens to be in Boston this year. Anyway, I followed this link and stumbled upon the juiciest, sexiest, most eye-popping movie I’ve seen all year: a speculative visit to the inside of a living cell.

Cellular Visions: The Inner Life of a Cell.

It’s sort of like the movie Fantastic Voyage, only from a molecule’s point of view. Starting on the outside of a white blood cell, you journey deep inside to gawk at some of the insane machinery that makes it work: a bubbling Golgi apparatus, actin fibers spontaneously spinning themselves from the soup, a lonely shuffling motor protein hauling its heavy-laden vesicle cargo up an endless microtubule footpath.

This is the movie I always wanted to make. From a protein’s point of view, the cell is an enormous place, and the process of building it is a mega-engineering project something like the construction of a skyscraper. Cartoony diagrams in biology textbooks just don’t transmit that sense of scale. You zoom through this cell, and you think, “My God! This thing is huge! Who’s in charge? What does that thing do?” The obvious question is: does it really look like that? The answer is a reasonably qualified yes, given their need to tell a visual story. Here is a quote from the press for the movie.

“There are plenty of others in the academic community creating these kinds of animations to illustrate concepts for students and their peers, but they tend to look and feel, well, very academic. The idea with this was to make something different, and there was definitely an effort to make it as cinematic as we could.” In some instances, that meant sacrificing literal accuracy for visual effect. “What we did in some cases, with the full support of the Harvard team, was subtly change the way things work,” Liebler says. “The reality is that all that stuff that’s going on in each cell is so tightly packed together that if we were to put every detail into every shot, you wouldn’t be able to see the forest for the trees or know what you were even looking at.”

I’m looking forward to a lot more movies like this. Proteins are very photogenic. You can see the full eight minute version of the movie (with scientific explanations and no cheesy music) at the XVIVO website. For the record, the process depicted goes by the name “leukocyte extravasation“. It’s not boy-meets-girl, but it’ll do.

One thought on “The Inner Life of a Cell”

  1. Where on the XVIVO website is the full version? I found a three minuet version but it still had the music and no explanations. Do I have to be a member/client to see it?

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