Pure Pedantry

Cool molecular animation

Check out this awesome molecular biology animation by XVIVO. My favorite is the depiction of actin and microtubule assembly and the movement of a kinesin molecule tethered to a vesicle.

Apparently, Harvard has contracted out with this company to provide this animations to students. If that is true, that would be lovely. Anything that helps students understand better is a good idea in my book.

However, I am skeptical about the validity of this:

XVIVO’s animation plays an instrumental role in the BioVisions at Harvard program established by Dr. Lue. “Furthermore, preliminary evaluation shows that using animations as a part of their study resource enhances performance on questions requiring data interpretation followed by hypothesis building in the cellular context by almost 30%,” says Dr. Lue. BioVisions is a computer-based learning environment for undergraduate students that will allow them to delve into the science of cellular study with more depth and opportunities to enhance their understanding. Dr. Lue describes BioVisions as a long-term project which brings top multimedia professionals together with students and faculty to harness multimedia applications – from streaming video to three-dimensional renderings – to further undergraduates’ understanding of laboratory techniques, protein structures, and molecular and cellular processes (Harvard University Gazette, 2002.) (Emphasis mine.)

Ummm, right. Animations and PowerPoint are quite lovely, but they are no substitute for solid teaching. I find it rather difficult to believe that students who didn’t already understand are suddenly getting light bulbs over their heads because of some CGI graphics.

Hat-tip: Slashdot.


  1. #1 John Wilkins
    September 4, 2006

    My staff member at the time, Drew Berry, pioneered this style of animation, and he did it as best as he could to the data, even going to original research papers in crystallography and contacting the researchers worldwide. You can see the results of his work here.

  2. #2 Corkscrew
    September 5, 2006

    However, since groups like this insist on the absolute latest! version of Flash, and don’t provide the material in any more accessable format, people with systems that don’t conform precisely to the Wintel norm (such as myself) are screwed.

    In my case, it’s Debian Linux. Flash V8 for linux hasn’t come out yet, which means that for the past few months I haven’t been able to view a single damn thing that I’ve seen linked on ScienceBlogs.

    I can’t imagine that it’s too fun for disabled folks either. Definite access issues.

  3. #3 DavidL
    September 6, 2006

    This animation is awesome, but I want to know what’s happening in each “scene”. Is there a more comprehensive version that explains what we are seeing?

  4. #4 sam
    October 17, 2006

    I watched that movie from XVIVO and was really disappointed: although the animation is pretty, the physics is all wrong. There’s no diffusion or stochastic motion taken into account, so it makes the cell look like a human machine, just smaller—it makes life look intelligently designed. I’m sure it’s hard to incorporate the diffusive nature of the cell into a movie, but XVIVO didn’t even try! And the kinesin walking like a little person walking. Right!

  5. #5 Ali
    October 18, 2006

    Actually, kinesin really does walk that way! For years, scientists thought it moved in a complicated 4-5 step manner involving sliding and also backward motion, but (relatively) recent molecular/structural analysis showed that indeed it “walks” “like a person.” In fact, it only really “walks like a person” because we have a completely anthropomorphic view of the world. Kinesin probably moves in that manner because it is the most efficient and thermodynamically favorable way for it to progress on a microtubule. It’s still pretty awesome.