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Environment & Climate Change

How scientists and artists turn microscopic organisms into striking works of art

The coronavirus is really really small. It measures around 120 nanometers. For context, the width of a single strand of human hair is somewhere around 75,000 nanometers. Under an electron microscope, the virus looks like a slightly blurry colorless orb.

So how do you get from a tiny, almost transparent virus under a microscope to the image of a red spiky orb we've come to associate with the novel coronavirus? We asked Deborah L. Gumucio, a professor emerita in Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan, that very question. 

Click through the slideshow above to see visual representations of scientific research from BioArtography, a project Gumucio helped found.

She says it starts with the scientists in the lab taking lots of photos of a virus, cell, or bacteria they are studying. The scientist is trying to make sure they capture what's important about that particular organism. Then, an artist takes that image, recreates it as a crisp, clear structure, and adds color to it to create a visually striking image. 

In addition to being beautiful, Gumucio says that she thinks this kind of imagery should also convey important information to the public. Take those red little spikes that give the virus its name—“corona” means crown, which is what the spikes form around the center of the virus. Gumucio says she'd love to have seen the widely-used image give people information on how to combat the highly contagious virus. 

“They could say ‘Okay, those spikes are made of protein, that protein dissolves in soap or hand sanitizers,’”  Gumucio explained. “If you took that, and then put a few words around the virus  that just said 'destroy this protein' or something, 'wash your hands, destroy this protein,’ something that would give people a little bit more information about how they can defeat it.”

Gumucio is one of the founders and director of the BioArtography project. The project, which was started in 2005, takes the images scientists at the University of Michigan see everyday and brings them to the wider world in the form of art prints. She says the idea came to her and a couple other colleagues when they were talking about how beautiful they found images they were seeing under their microscopes.

“We actually react to those images very viscerally, like we see an image of bone marrow, and it’s absolutely beautiful,” Gumucio said.

They decided to mat and frame the photos as a way to fundraise money to send people in their lab to conferences to present their work. Since then, it's moved from being just a fundraising tool to a project that's focused on educating and communicating with the public. Each image comes with a paragraph that talks about the photo and the research that produced it.

Creative might not be the first word that comes to mind when people think of scientific research, but Gumucio says that's not true at all. While all scientific research is grounded in data, the strikingly beautiful images they create with BioArtography illustrate how important creativity really is to science. 

“To go beyond what is known and what the data tell us now, to project what the data might mean for a fact that we might not yet know, that’s what the creativity is all about,” Gumucio said. “What BioArtography does is utilize that creativity to communicate to the public.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

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