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Art Advancing Science: Filmmaking Leads to Molecular Insights at the Nanoscale

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posted on 18.10.2017, 00:00 by Charles Reilly, Donald E. Ingber
Many have recognized the potential value of facilitating activities that span the art–science interface for the benefit of society; however, there are few examples that demonstrate how pursuit of an artistic agenda can lead to scientific insights. Here, we describe how we set out to produce an entertaining short film depicting the fertilization of the egg by sperm as a parody of a preview for another Star Wars movie to excite the public about science, but ended up developing a simulation tool for multiscale modeling. To produce an aesthetic that communicates mechanical continuity across spatial scales, we developed custom strategies that integrate physics-based animation software from the entertainment industry with molecular dynamics simulation tools, using experimental data from research publications. Using this approach, we were able to depict biological physicality across multiple spatial scales, from how sperm tails move to collective molecular behavior within the axoneme to how the molecular motor, dynein, produces force at the nanometer scale. The dynein simulations, which were validated by replicating results of past simulations and cryo-electron microscopic studies, also predicted a potential mechanism for how ATP hydrolysis drives dynein motion along the microtubule as well as how dynein changes its conformation when it goes through the power stroke. Thus, pursuit of an artistic work led to insights into biology at the nanoscale as well as the development of a highly generalizable modeling and simulation technology that has utility for nanoscience and any other area of scientific investigation that involves analysis of complex multiscale systems.

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