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David Goodsell
Image courtesy of David Goodsell.

Drawing Conclusions
Art and Science combine to image what cannot be seen.

An interview with David Goodsell by Mary K. Miller

David Goodsell is a molecular biologist and associate professor at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. His lab researches drug resistance in HIV, which involves studying both the structure and function of molecules involved in the disease. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Goodsell also writes and creates the illustrations for a column called " Molecule of the Month " for the Protein Data Bank , an archive of the 3-D protein structures of 18,000 different molecules. This resource is used by structural chemists, biomedical researchers, geneticists, and educators.

Professor Goodsell has also had a lifelong passion for art. His paintings, drawings, and computer-generated illustrations of molecules and cells have been displayed in galleries and featured on the covers of magazines and science journals. Goodsell’s illustrations are based on scientific data from a variety of sources, including scientific papers, micrographs of individual molecules, and information about molecular structures gained from X-ray crystallography. His representations of cells are both accurate and beautiful. He is the author and illustrator of several books, including the upcoming "Bionanotechnology: Lessons from Nature" (Wiley and Sons, 2002).

Goodsell’s artwork is featured in the " How Does a Muscle Work? " poster.

Mary K. Miller: Your artwork opens a new world, something that can’t really be seen even with a microscope. How much of this new view is artistic interpretation and how much is scientific data?

David Goodsell: We’re at a stage in the science where a lot of the major molecular structures are known, but there are gray areas. Probably two-thirds of the molecules’ structures are known. For the others, I have to speculate about their size or even the fact that they exist. When I draw these pictures, I try to imagine what it would be like inside a cell with molecules and other structures close to their proper shapes and dimensions. I think this adds more complexity and maybe a little more realism than previous pictures. When other people have attempted to draw cells at the level I’m doing, they simplify things by using circles and triangles to point out areas of uncertainty. I’ve resisted that because it breaks the illusion that this is a photograph or a direct representation. When I made that decision, it opened the possibility of errors being introduced, but most of my scientific colleagues understand why I’m doing that.

Miller: Is it an aesthetic or scientific choice to add that realism to your illustrations?
Goodsell: That definitely comes from science. It’s just in the past decade or so that we’ve been able to do that because we have so many known structures. But the real challenge is that when I draw one of those pictures I go to each individual reference, pull out each individual structure, and combine them all.

Miller: Do you consider your computer-generated images as artistic or aesthetically pleasing as your painted or hand-drawn pictures?

E. Coli TEM Protein-DNA Drawing E. Coli Drawing

Goodsell combines information from many sources to create illustrations. He starts with electron micrographs. Here is a transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of an Escherichia coli bacterium, magnified 120,000 times.


G oodsell then looks for molecules’ individual structures. On the left (above) are proteins, bound within the cell membrane, that are involved in energy production. The molecules in the center are involved in protein production. On the right is a DNA strand with several proteins involved in reading genetic information.

Finally, Goodsell places all the structures in the proper places, creating an image of the cell showing all the molecules, such as in this illustration of an E. coli bacterium.

Micrograph courtesy of University of California, Berkeley, Department of Molecular & Cell Biology, Instructional Laboratory Program. Illustrations courtesy of David Goodsell.

Goodsell: I try to blur the line between the two. In my computer pictures I go for a style that is reminiscent of my hand-drawn style and vice versa. That being said, I certainly put a lot more of myself into my paintings and hand-drawn pictures. The paintings also contain more speculation than the computer pictures. The computer renderings are based directly on data and could be used for anything from a textbook to a general science magazine to a journal article. Because there is more speculation in the paintings, they’re used more as an introduction rather than to explain something directly.

Miller: Most people think that science and art operate in completely different realms, but you manage to combine them. Does the combination of art and science together contribute more to your pictures than either alone would do?

Goodsell: One thing I’ve noted is that scientists and artists are different. When I go to a scientific conference, the scientists tend to be very confrontational. Everyone is questioning your results, which is the way science works. If your results don’t make it, there was something wrong. When I go to artistic conferences, everyone is walking in with their approach to the subject and they tend to be much more supportive. There isn’t as much questioning because it’s more of a personal interpretation of what you’re doing.

In my own work, the combination of art and science gives me a way to access the wonder of nature. It makes me really look at results and think about them in a deeper way. The thing that drives me continually is the beauty of these objects that I’m working on and being amazed at how unusual they are. That’s something most scientists don’t spend much time on, coming up with ways to display their work that captures their excitement about science.

Miller: In your scientific work, what is the relationship between form and function in understanding how proteins and other biological molecules work?

Goodsell: It’s like understanding any piece of machinery. You have to know what it looks like and how its different parts interact with other parts, the other molecules. The study of structure also allows us to go in and make changes. For instance, in my HIV research that’s exactly what we do—we look at the structure of one of the viral proteins called protease. Protease cuts other proteins into pieces, a key step in the ability of HIV to mature in the cell. Because we know the structure and function of protease, we can design a new molecule that will go in and block its ability to chop up other proteins. That’s where the Protein Data Bank comes in handy—for finding molecules that have specific shapes and functions. There are all kinds of different molecules in there, some of which are very useful.

Miller: In your books and in your Web column, you seem to also have developed your literary talents. Is writing for the general public something that’s difficult for a scientist?

Goodsell: Most scientists, it’s true, are hopelessly mired in jargon. It’s useful for communicating with people who are in the same field. For me, writing for a broader audience is much more recent, starting with my books. I was really lucky to have a mentor in this at UCLA, Richard Dickerson, who was my graduate advisor. He has a long history of really taking the time to think about who he’s writing for and encouraging his students to do the same. It’s a real challenge, trying to reach a general audience, but it’s really, really satisfying.

Miller: Do you consider it a bigger achievement if one of your paintings lands on the cover of American Scientist magazine than if one of your scientific articles were appearing inside the journal?

Goodsell: I’m more proud of my pictures, because they’re an expression of me. Dick (Dickerson) who I learned everything from, once told me that as a scientist you have to divorce your feelings from your work, so you can stand up to criticism and not take it personally. I try to exercise that with all of my research, but I don’t do that with my pictures. They are uniquely me, and when someone makes a comment about them they’re making a comment about my aesthetics. They are closer to an expression of what I feel.

Miller: Any last thoughts?

Goodsell: Just the general concept that people are starting to think more about art and science together. My science colleagues are much more likely to go to an artist or illustrator to present their work and artists are going more and more to scientists to understand these concepts and fold them into their own work. Artists want to understand more about the research because there are real implications for society and they want to comment on that and make the issues clearer for the public. So the lines are blurring, or at least the sides are more and more willing to talk. It’s an exciting time for all of us.


This story originally appeared in the Cells issue of the "Exploratorium Magazine."

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