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Molecular eye-candy

Drew Berry, a molecular animator presents his latest research on using CGI animation to help study the infection process of malaria at the TEDx Sydney 2011 conference. Image courtesy TEDx Sydney 2011.

In January 2011, iSGTW reported on the field of molecular animation, which is the use of 3D animation software, usually associated with the film industry, to recreate a cinematic experience of the molecular environment within living organisms. In January 2012, a video was posted from the TEDx Sydney 2011 conference in May last year of a presentation by Drew Berry, a biomedical animator, shows how molecular animation can help study the World's most deadliest diseases.

Berry has produced animations exhibited all over the world, from the Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Royal Institute of Great Britain, UK, and the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

Molecular animation has been growing over the past few years, taking-off with the three-minute film, The Inner Life of a Cell, created by the BioVisions project at Harvard University. It became an instant success. The animation was created using 3D software NewTek LightWave 3D and with the support of a scientific animation company called XVIVO in Connecticut, USA, which has a render farm of over 160 CPUs capable of creating complex simulations.

In the TEDx Sydney presentation, Berry said, "molecules are smaller than the wavelength of light. We have no way to directly observe them, but through science we have a fairly good idea of what's going on down at the molecular scale." While scientists can tell us about molecules, they can't actually show us the molecules. That's where drawing pictures and imagery comes in, which is nothing new in science.

Berry got involved in molecular animation when he saw accurately scaled-down molecular art by researcher David Goodsell in 2000. Berry said; could computer graphics show what the molecular world actually looked like. The answer was it can.

Berry said the latest computer graphics don't just have to show aesthetic 'molecular eye-candy', but can enable researchers to eradicate disease and the suffering it causes.

He then shows the lifecycle of malaria within a human host. Malaria kills millions of people, who are mostly children and pregnant women. The TEDx Talk audience in Sydney are shown intricate details of the infection processes that occur when a mosquito bites a human being. A CGI video shows the malaria parasite leaving the mosquito's saliva as it bites a human neck, enters the blood stream and uses the human host's own blood vessel circulatory system as a massive freeway, to infect the liver and blood cells.

This visual research has already helped scientists better study and understand how this process works, so a malaria vaccine could be created.

- Adrian Giordani

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