What malaria looks like

Drew Berry is an animator, and what he animates is something that can’t be seen. He takes the latest research on molecular biology and turns it into movies about how life works. His protagonists, the molecules that constitute our cells, are smaller than the wavelength of the light we use to see. But in a broader and more figurative sense, scientific advances are shining a bright light on vast previously unknown landscapes of biology, and the view is absolutely breathtaking. So while we cannot see the molecules drive us, we do know what they look like.

I’ve collected and admired Berry’s videos for some time, so I was delighted to come across a TED talk in which he discusses and showcases his work. I was surprised to learn that he was originally inspired by none other than David Goodsell, the other guru of biological visualization, and another hero of mine. What’s great about these guys is that they keep up with the science so you know what you’re getting is not a watered-down version. Everybody knows the basics of DNA, but Berry is going to show you the weird whiplash mechanics required to replicate the strand of DNA that’s moving in the “wrong” direction (3:50 in the video below). Every biology student has seen the blobby diagrams that correspond to the phases of mitosis, but Berry is going to show you the teeming construction site view of the microtubule scaffolding that attaches to the chromosomes. Watch those dyneins and kinesins zipping up and down the microtubules like trams in a train yard (8:20 in the video). Finally, you may have some understanding of the life cycle of malaria, but Berry will bring it to life in disturbing detail. Watch as the nasty little parasite smashes the window on a red blood cell, crawls inside, and turns it into a clotted crawling nest of writhing plasmodium babies (12:40 in the video).

I’ll close with Berry’s own words. This is from an article describing his MacArthur Grant award.

My approach is the opposite tack to simplifying the science. Rather than dumbing it down, I set out to show the audience exactly what the scientists are talking about. By building accurate visualisations founded on real scientific data, the animations come alive of their own accord, engage the audience, and go a long way towards explaining what the science is about. The science is rich, detailed and fascinating, and if you can watch it in action you will intuitively get to know how it works.

UPDATE: I just noticed that Apple is featuring Berry’s animations prominently in their recent iBooks textbooks announcement.